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

From: Tennessee Leeuwenburg (
Date: Fri Mar 25 2005 - 16:24:59 MST

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| 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
| term.

Actually, I thought Keith was misled by that metaphorical framework.

For example : "Altruism between unrelated people can be considered a
misfiring of the evolved psychological traits."

Can they? Why? I object on the following dot-point bases:

* Factual error
* Metaphorical/ontological error
* Error on its own terms

I completely deny that hunter-gatherer tribal structures were the
foundation of evolution in modern man, who has been, biologically
speaking, essentially static for tens of thousands of years, well into
the past of hunter-gatherer society.

* From the first oral and artistic record, it is clear that morality and
altruism has been a defining trait of humans from day one.
* From archaeological evidence, it is clear that artistic awareness,
trading and societal values have been a defining trait of humans from
day one
* From archaeological evidence, it is clear that Neanderthals did not
have these to the same degree

- --- Factual Error --
I would say these refute the idea that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle was
the evolutionary cause of altruism in humans. Rather I would say it is
impossible to extricate any specific factors from the context of early
human life, including but not limited to lifestyle, brain structure,
language and communication, environmental factors, sexual selection and
mere chance. To claim that early humans would have been better off with
a narrower, more genetically-focused sense of loyalty, is wild and
unfounded speculation.

- -- Error on its own terms, or mistaken beliefs about the goal
If you accept my factual account that altruism evolved in a context
where there were several variables, then it is clear the altruism did
not clearly arise to deal with any specific new factor. Assigning
evolution a goal is mistake, because it leads us to look for evidence of
its truth. The example of genetic loyalty makes a degree of sense,
because it seems intuitive that it would promote an individual's
reproductive power. But look around - it is genetic *diversity* which is
valuable, not breeding for a single fittest individual. In fact, a
society who had an inbred sense of altruism would fall far more rapidly
to the attacks of disease and genetic aberration.

- -- Metaphorical / ontological error
Evolution is essentially a description of system dynamics, something
which is basically a truism. Only the fit survive. Subject to death as a
lower bound, and overpopulation as an upper bound, organisms are free to
express randomly, and occasionally some traits will become societally
successful, such as the modern attractiveness of Capri jeans and pop
music. To call such genetic diversity a "misfiring" is clearly an error.

- -Tennessee

Chris Capel wrote:
| On Thu, 24 Mar 2005 22:11:31 -0500, Keith Henson <>
|>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.
| [snip]
|>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.

| Chris Capel

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