Re: There is No Altruism ("misfiring" and adaptive traits)

From: Chris Capel (
Date: Thu Mar 24 2005 - 21:03:18 MST

On Thu, 24 Mar 2005 22:11:31 -0500, Keith Henson <> wrote:
> At 01:05 PM 24/03/05 +1100, Tennesee Leeuwenburg wrote:
> > Keith Henson wrote:
> > | Altruism between unrelated people can be considered a misfiring of
> > | the evolved psychological traits. We just don't live in related
> > | tribes to the extent we did in the stone age so we treat others
> > | better than their relatedness to us would justify in gene terms.
> >
> >Psychological-traits are not goal oriented, they are evolved. To
> >consider any evolved system to be "mis-firing" is to misunderstand the
> >nature of evolution, which is simply the mechanism by which organisms
> >adapt to circumstances.
> But let me give you an example of misfiring. We have chemically mediated
> reward systems in our brains that for the most part reward us for things
> like sex, attention, and food. This reward system is very well adapted to
> promote reproductive success in hunter gatherer tribes.
> The reward system misfires when it is activated by addictive drugs. This
> has been determined in great detail most recently with fMRI studies. Now
> the trait to get addicted to drugs is an obvious misfiring of the social
> reward system evolved for other reasons. (Otherwise you need to make a
> case that being nodded out on plant narcotics made you more likely to
> reproduce (instead of being eaten) in a hunter gatherer world.)

I think the question here was over terminology. What I think Mr.
Leeuwenburg was saying is that it's incorrect to say that an adaptive
trait can "misfire", because that presumes a teleological origin of
the trait, which for a literal interpretation of evolution is a no-no.
However, I tend to agree with you, Keith, that it's perfectly OK to
use this terminology to describe certain phenomena. But let's make
sure we're clear on what we're describing.

A "misfiring" of an adaptive trait is a consequence of that trait that
affects the organism adversely in certain situations (such that the
organism would survive more often in those situations without the
particular adaptation). If these "misfirings" for any particular trait
were worse than the advantages overall (in the EEA), the trait would
have never evolved, and thus the negative consequence is usually only
seen in unusual circumstances. Sometimes, as with sugar consumption
and fat storage, it is seen more often, when the circumstance is a
novel feature of modern society.

But I think this usage, metaphorical as it is, isn't too dangerous, is
it, Tennessee? Certainly to use it is not necessarily to
"misunderstand the nature of evolution", though it may obscure the
actual method of evolutionary adaptation. I think the paragraph of
Keith's to which you were replying to originally didn't abuse the

Chris Capel

"What is it like to be a bat? What is it like to bat a bee? What is it
like to be a bee being batted? What is it like to be a batted bee?"
-- The Mind's I (Hofstadter, Dennet)

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