Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Unselfish Mind (Part 12)

In his book The Dawn Warriors, zoologist Robert Bigelow (1969), gave a stark description of the dialectic between our tribalism and our altruistic cooperation. “A hydrogen bomb is an example of mankind’s enormous capacity for friendly cooperation. Its construction requires an intricate network of human teams, all working with single minded devotion toward a common goal. Let us pause and savor the glow of self-congratulation we deserve for belonging to such an intelligent and sociable species” (p. 3).

Our tribalism has fostered altruism within groups and hostility towards out groups. The most dangerous manifestation of out-group hostility is war. 

War as an institution has its origins in the agricultural revolution of the neolithic era, about 10,000 years ago. Prior to this physical conflict certainly existed between hunter gather bands, but these conflicts were limited in scope []

The invention of settled agriculture meant that people now had resources, land and surplus wealth generated by farming that were worth stealing. As farming technology improved, so did wealth. Now societies were able to create better technologies for war and could afford to have military specialists, soldiers, to fight those wars (Eckhardt, 1992). 

A society got better at war by having better means of tying individuals to the collective purpose. And societies that were better at war, were more likely to win in battle. We have no better model of group selection than human history.

But precisely because of the historicity of human grouping, we can have some hope for the future. Our tendency to draw a line between in-group and out-group is strong. Freud wrote of the “narcissism of small differences,” and there is no shortage of examples. Tiny leftist sects split and split again over what appears to any outsider as arcane differences of opinion. There is a split between two Hutterite sects over the question of buttons versus hooks for fastening clothes.  

However, it is important to note that the line between in-group and out-group is culturally and historically determined. 

Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Unselfish Mind (Part 11)

If we are to see into the heart of the human condition we must have some explanation for our altruistic behavior.

Darwin was aware of this mystery and he proposed two solutions. One was a kind of tribal selection, the other had to do with the humans’ enhanced cognitive abilities.

The tribal explanation was straightforward. Our ancestors lived in tribal groups that were in competition with each other. Groups that had higher levels of internal cooperation tended to out compete tribes with less collaborative members. In other words Darwin was proposing a model of group selection.

More recent evolutionary theorists have been uncomfortable with Darwin’s invocation of group selection. Thus, Dawkins proposed a somewhat different version that does not entail group selection. In his model, our ancestors evolved in tightly knit small units, where there was a high probability that people you came in contact with were related, or could reciprocate our favors, thus we developed a genetic instruction that commanded us to help everyone, a kind of indiscriminate altruism. As we moved into larger societies entailing more interactions with non-kin, we simply kept our wholesale altruism. Social scientist Howard Margolis (1982) described this as “genetic inertia” or “fossil kin altruism” (p. 34).

We might compare this to our desire for high calorie foods, which was very adaptive for our ancestors living in food scarce environments. However, unfortunately for our waistlines, this adaption continues even after high calorie food had become cheap and plentiful. Unlike our food preferences, our indiscriminate altruism had many beneficial consequences.

There is a major problem with Dawkins’ hypothesis. It does not explain how human altruism has coexisted with our strong tendency for in-group favoritism. Dawkins’ model would predict an unbounded altruism, yet historically humans have set limits on their benevolence. Our ancestors may have been indiscriminate altruists, but only to members of their own tribe. 

While Darwin’s tribal selection model remains controversial it offers a better explanation for the facts of human altruism than Dawkins’ hypothesis. Tribal selection can explain certain human traits, such as the extreme ease at which people organize themselves into rival groups that are mistrustful of outsiders.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

The Unselfish Mind (Part 10)


Some kinds of altruism are easier to explain. Kin altruism is the clearest example. If you have siblings or children, then there are other beings with whom you share genes. By sacrificing yourself for your close relatives, you might be insuring the propagation of your shared genes. Thus, parental sacrifice or sacrifice for siblings could confer an evolutionary advantage.  

But what about altruism towards non-relatives? This clearly exists, both in humans and other animals. Given selfish genes, why would anyone make a sacrifice, of any kind, to a non-related person?

One possible explanation is reciprocity. We might be willing to do a favor for another individual, if the cost is low and the probability of receiving a favor in return is high enough. In other words, we might be willing to do a good turn, if there is a reasonable chance that person would reciprocate in the future.

Altruism is often defined narrowly as behavior that benefits the recipient at a cost to the actor. But note here that most evolutionary theorists define altruism more broadly to include any behavior where an actor creates benefit for a recipient. That action may or may not benefit the donor (or the donor’s genes). In case of reciprocal altruism both actor and recipient benefit, although those benefits may not occur simultaneously. Note that reciprocity does not depend on shared genes, indeed, there are examples of reciprocity across species. Symbiosis would be a good example. You provide a good home for the bacteria in your gut, your microbiome. In turn your microbiome reciprocates by helping you digest food.

For larger animals to participate in reciprocal exchanges they generally need certain cognitive characteristics. First they must live in close social contact with other animals, so that the opportunity for receiving a favor in return is high. They must be able to distinguish between different individuals and be able to remember who reciprocates and who does not. Finally, there must be the ability to identify and punish cheaters.

 And, in fact, social animals with these cognitive prerequisites often do practice reciprocity. How such a system of reciprocity can arise has been well studied by game theorists.

But are these explanations, kin altruism and reciprocity, sufficient to account for human altruism? No they are not. Human altruism seems too extreme. While other animals may engage in reciprocity, humans practice what is called “strong reciprocity” – not only do we reciprocate, we reward cooperative behavior and impose costs for violations of cooperative norms. Indeed, we often do so even at a cost to ourselves. Humans will incur loss to punish norm violators, even when they are not the victims of violation itself.

Moreover, humans often act altruistically even with the awareness that there is no possibility for reciprocation. Take the example of kidney donation, here the cost to the donor is high, the recipient is frequently unrelated, and the possibility of any significant reciprocation is vanishingly small. Yet people do donate kidneys, sometimes to complete strangers. This is, of course, an extreme example, and most people do not give up their kidneys. But all of us participate in a complex society with its vast social networks, such as global markets and nation states, demanding extensive cooperation with non-kin. The benefits of such global cooperation may be obvious to us now, but how did we get here? Can we explain that leap?

Thursday, July 7, 2022

The Unselfish Mind (Part 9)

To see why altruism is a problem, imagine an animal predisposed to sacrificing itself for the good of others. If you give up life and limb to help others, it is those others who will have a greater opportunity to reproduce. And in natural selection, reproduction is the coin of the realm.  Thus, it would seem, that selection would tend to weed out altruism. More altruism, fewer offspring. Sacrificing yourself for the good of the community or the species, seems like a fool’s errand. Wouldn’t it be much better for your reproductive fitness to be the recipient of altruism rather than the donor? In the words of Garrett Hardin, “we must not forget that we are descended from an unbroken line of egoistic ancestors.” And yet, examples of altruism, self-sacrifice for others, abound. In fact, we can reliably find evidence of human altruism in the laboratory. 

Economists have devised an experimental procedure called the ultimatum game. This is a simple two person game. One player is given a sum of money and is told to offer some of the money, at least $1, to the other player. The second player can either accept or reject the offer. If the proposal is accepted, the money is paid out according to the offer. If it is rejected, then no money is paid out and both players get nothing. Usually the game is played anonymously and only one time. 

If people were purely selfish, then we would expect that the first player would offer the smallest amount possible, $1, and that the second player would always accept. After all, within the terms of the game, the first player would lose the least and the second player would be a little bit richer. But this rarely happens. The most common offer is half of the available money, and when the offer is below 40%, it is often rejected. 

It is clear from this and similar experiments that humans are more altruistic than we might expect from evolutionary and economic theory. The question is why?