RE: There is No Altruism

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Thu Mar 24 2005 - 18:49:54 MST

At 12:21 PM 24/03/05 -0500, you wrote:

> > I don't think I'd take oblivion for any purpose, even
> > to save ten other people. Although I'd really love to
> > be that philosophical, I just can't pay my life for
> > ideals like utilitarianism.
>I believe you.
>However, some feel differently. I know several individuals, each of whom
>*would* trade their lives in order to save 10 random strangers with whom
>they have minimal genetic relatedness -- an action that would go against the
>interest of their selfish genome as well as their selfish organism.

That's actually to be expected, but if you look deeper, it isn't so much
against the gene's interest after all, particularly in the environment in
which we evolved.

One factor is that people in those days didn't jump off cliffs to certain
death to save relatives, they took risks in an attempt to save close
relatives and/or less related people.

If you take a serious risk and come out alive, your status is enhanced
(even if you die, the status of your relatives may be enhanced enough to
partly make up for your loss--consider Todd Beamer, the guy who led the
attack on the Flight 93 hijackers). Now in the days in which most of our
evolution occurred, status was highly associated with improved reproductive
success, so taking the right kind of risks was rewarded by more children.

Thus we are left with the psychological traits to take some kinds of risks
for others. (And in the days when this was selected, the people you were
around were also your more or less close relatives.)

And it certainly works. My status has been enhanced by times I have taken
risks to save people or property from fires. My brother's was enhanced by
saving a guy from drowning in rough surf off Hawaii. (My brother is a
really level headed guy. He had rescue training and took as little risk as
possible. He tells me that if he had not been able to find proper gear,
the guy would have drowned. As he put it, there was no point in both of
them dying.)

>You could argue this isn't "true altruism" because their goal may be
>personal satisfaction or personal ego-boosting or something, rather than
>"pure altruism" -- but I don't tend to find such arguments very meaningful.

I am in agreement about the arguments lacking meaning. Even if you do
understand the reason people are heros, it's not like they ran a spread
sheet on the pros and cons of saving someone, there just isn't time even if
you could quantify all the factors. And the fact that hero genes do better
(or at least *did* do better) does not make them any less worthy of our

However, the theory problem with "pure altruism" is that psychological
traits that only depress your "inclusive fitness" while enhancing unrelated
others just don't close the evolution/selection loop.

>As far as I'm concerned, this is an example of genuine altruism, and it's
>not explained via the neo-Darwinist orthodoxy very well. It's explained by
>the variant of evolutionary theory that emphasizes self-organization and
>dynamical attractors.

As far as I know, neo-Darwin theory is "dynamical attractors," shaped by
millions of years as hunter gatherer tribes who got along in good times and
killed each other when bad times were a-coming.

>Altruism (in the sense I'm using it here) is a psychological attractor, and
>the quasi-altruism that the selfish genome promotes has pushed some human
>brains toward that attractor. Guiding AGI's into this psychological
>attractor will be an important topic in AGI psychology...

There is also the need to clearly understand what's involved in the origin
of human altruism.

Of course, if you do understand it and talk about it you can expect to take
a lot of flack. For the most part people are very uncomfortable talking
about the parts of our minds that are usually hidden from us.

Keith Henson

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