The debate continues…
Mike, you make a good case, but I think you bring up a common misconception about evolution: that “survival of the fittest” = “every man for himself.” In the wiki about kin selection, it talks about “Hamilton’s Rule” – explains why prairie dogs sound alarms to their family even though it singles them out to predators. You say that mammals “will not hesitate to engage in infanticide,” but that’s hardly ever the case. What about salmon that exhaust themselves to death by swimming upstream to lay their eggs, or octopuses that starve to death tending to their young, or birds that fake a broken wing to distract predators from their nest, the list goes on… Hamilton makes sense of animal altruism by defining an equation between cost and benefit to the altruist’s genes. The equation itself is pretty useless (I see it as just an attempt at making evolution a more absolute science, which it isn’t) but the idea that the benefit to the altruist is directly related to the benefit of the recipient and the “degree of relatedness” is pretty huge. It means that altruism, like any evolutionary trait, is the result of a balance of influences: the cost to the individual and the benefit to kin. According to this balance, animals are selfish only when the cost of altruism is too great. And sometimes, as in the cases above, even the cost of death isn’t enough for a family member to think of themselves first. You say that concern for the survival of the self is an instinctual prerequisite, but I think the opposite could be true: we instinctively think of family members first, then back down if the cost is too great, and from seeing incidents like this, I think we’re wired to make that decision in a split second.
(Some more on infanticide: When parents do eat their young, it’s because the cost of altruism is too great. Sometimes the offspring is too weak to survive so the parent is forced to eat them to benefit its own survival. Resource competition turns even the most team player prairie dogs into baby killers. Another reason for infanticide, seen in lions, is to gulp down parts of the gene pool that pose a threat to their survival. These cases usually involve species that have a lot of babies, so they’re relatively “expendable.” The exception is male-ruled species like lions, where the male successor must do some “ethnic cleansing.” (Is it a coincidence that some power-hungry human males have done some ethnic cleansing of their own?) But as species have less offspring the cost of losing one becomes greater, and they’re more likely to adapt ways of getting around eating their babies, like the kangaroo. In the animal kingdom, when babies are on the menu, parents usually prefer another meal.)
To continue, I agree that altruism has evolved as a form of reciprocation, but not completely back to one’s self, because in evolution the individual is only one path of a gene pool’s outlet into the future. I move from this scientific meaning to the “family feeling,” because I believe that our cognitive ability to empathize with each other can extend outside our gene pool (as opposed to using only pheromones and whatnot to recognize kin). Scientifically, it might be those mirror neurons coming into play, which lead us to make investments in groups like sports teams which have no bearing on our own success. Of course, evolutionary science doesn’t guide our every decision and there is such a thing as individual free will, but I think the predispositions of society as a whole are highly influenced by human evolution.
About one’s individual sense of purpose: I agree that people want to make their own legacy, but is it really a natural need to always be identified as an individual? Or is it our society’s glorification of the individual (the celebrity hero) that captivates us towards this? I really don’t know (that’s another debate), but I do know there’s a sweet spot for everyone where they feel individually recognized, but also included. I think Tim Berners-Lee found this sweet spot while working on the web. He says in his TEDTalk:
It was difficult to explain, but there was a grassroots movement. And that is what has made it most fun. That has been the most exciting thing, not the technology, not the things people have done with it, but actually the community, the spirit of all these people getting together, sending the emails.
So I think that just being identified within a group which is involved in a common goal that you believe in can be as rewarding as receiving a gold star or a pat on the back. And I think the underlying psychology has to do with these mirror neurons and that “family feeling.” The problem is finding that “sweet spot” in a world where huge corporations and big cities can seem overwhelmingly complex and out of our control.
So I’ll bring up a new question in response to Mike’s suggestion: What if what we “generally don’t cognitively recognize” is not that our reciprocated actions are inherently selfish, but that our reciprocated actions are inherently altruistic? What if the selfishness that we’re driven towards isn’t natural, but artificial?
As humans, we are a social species with few numbers of offspring and, at least in our society, we have plenty of resources. The above trends in evolutionary biology suggest that we should be one big happy family. Alright, maybe not one big family, but within some scope of relatedness, we have the necessary ingredients for altruism. Yet every day that rich get richer and the poor get poorer. So what’s the problem?
I don’t know if I’ve made this clear yet: I don’t believe that biological altruism is the same as everyday altruism in people (we’re not slaves to our genes), but I do think that it has roots in our underlying psychology. I think these rooted mechanisms for altruism can be twisted and pulled by the status quo. What I mean is that maybe it is the evolution of our society that constrains our altruistic tendencies by artificially raising the cost of altruism and lowering the benefit.
(Btw, I’m not the only one who thinks this: the other day I was in the coffee place at the library and I couldn’t help but overhear a guy and girl next to me talking about this. They were trying to study, but drifted off into conversation about how wrapped up everyone is in the rat race. I remember the guy called it “systemic selfishness.” They were talking about how no one talks to each other on the bus, etc. and I couldn’t help but interrupt and tell them how much I agreed.)
A good example is donations – hard to see the benefit, easy to see the cost. When you donate to some large organization like the Red Cross, the dent in your wallet is obvious, but how the money gets used is anybody’s guess. It’s difficult to trust such a large group to use the money efficiently and do the right thing. Also, because the scope of care is so large, we might not necessarily want to support all of the causes under their umbrella.
Another thing is anonymity – I think it creates selfish tendencies because it eliminates recognition: a benefit for altruism and a cost for selfishness. A good example is road rage: chances are you’ll never see that person that you cut off again, so why not do it? Another example is shoplifting: much easier to get away with and less guilt for a shoplifter at a crowded WalMart than at the local mom-and-pop store.
So, to conclude (finally), I think that is that it’s an evolved system of overgrown societal groups that dilute the benefit of altruism and encourage selfishness. I think that this artificial “systemic selfishness” can sway our genetic predisposition for altruism. The more evolved and overgrown a society becomes, the more selfish the individuals seem to get.
Here’s a pretty cynical take by Louis C.K. on consumers and capitalism along the same lines. I try not to be so pessimistic: I think there’s opportunity for change and it starts with people being aware of how society influences their decisions, and as Ghandi said, “We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.”