Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Altruism and the Darwinians

In the world of  Darwinian science, altruism has always posed a problem. If our true purpose is to transmit our genes to the next and generations to come, how does it happen that people perform altruistic and self-sacrificing actions that will diminish their chance of passing on their genes in favor of someone else’s.

At least, that’s the way I understand this complicated question.

Darwinian theory explains selfishness very well. And it assumes that our selfish behaviors are dictated and directed by genetic necessity. We act selfishly in order to transmit our genetic makeup, because our genes desire to sustain themselves, to live on throughout the generations.

But, does altruistic behavior disprove Darwin?

Today, most evolutionary biologists have explained altruism by noting that we share our genes with our close relatives. One person can sacrifice himself for the good of his family and his relations.

In that way, his genes, in part, though not as a whole, will live on, and will have a better opportunity to continue to live on.

This is called kin selection theory.

Now, what would it mean, from a Darwinian perspective, to say that someone has given his life for his country? This level of selflessness does not make a lot of sense.

Kin selection theory would claim that the soldier lays down his life for his cousins, not his country. If that is true, then we are simply deluding ourselves when we say that we are loyal and honor-bound to defend our country?

Let's imagine people who become true believers in Darwin. Do they believe that their purpose in life is to pass on their genes? Do they believe that patriotism is outmoded and useless, that they owe nothing to their community or nation, and that it suffices that they fulfill their biological destiny by reproducing. Perhaps they believe that they owe a few altruistic gestures to those who are connected by blood, but, beyond that, they are not ethically bound.

It would appear, to this novice in the field, that there is no real place for nobility or loyalty or for feelings of belonging to a community. It’s all about a bunch of selfish genes that are making you do what they need you to do in order to survive.

So, now, along comes the eminent Darwinian entomologist Edward O. Wilson declaring that the theory of kin selection is wrong, because human beings are motivated by an independent wish to promote the success and survival of their social group.

Wilson just wrote a paper raising this issue in the journal Nature. It provoked a torrent of criticism, something that often happens when someone, even an eminent authority, attacks received dogmas.

The dispute became loud enough to have reached the mainstream press. The Boston Globe reported: “The alternative theory holds that the origins of altruism and teamwork have nothing to do with kinship or the degree of relatedness between individuals. The key, Wilson said, is the group: Under certain circumstances, groups of cooperators can out-compete groups of non-cooperators, thereby ensuring that their genes — including the ones that predispose them to cooperation — are handed down to future generations. This so-called group selection, Wilson insists, is what forms the evolutionary basis for a variety of advanced social behaviors linked to altruism, teamwork, and tribalism — a position that other scientists have taken over the years, but which historically has been considered, in Wilson’s own word, ‘heresy.’”  Link here.

The article then quotes Wilson: “Human beings have an intense desire to form groups, and they always have….This powerful tendency we have to form groups and then have the groups compete, which is in every aspect of our social basically the driving force that caused the origin of human behavior.”

I would question the use of the notion of desire here. All humans live in groups. This is a natural condition. I see no reason to imply that human beings start out as random individuals and then come together into a group.

I am not, as I say, an expert in this field. So I looked up an article on natural selection in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Link here. There I discovered that the theory of group selection has a distinguished progenitor.

It was first proposed by Darwin himself.

Here is the SEP analysis: If selection acts exclusively at the individual level, favouring some individual organisms over others, then it seems that altruism cannot evolve, for behaving altruistically is disadvantageous for the individual organism itself, by definition. However, it is possible that altruism may be advantageous at the group level. A group containing lots of altruists, each ready to subordinate their own selfish interests for the greater good of the group, may well have a survival advantage over a group composed mainly or exclusively of selfish organisms. A process of between-group selection may thus allow the altruistic behaviour to evolve. Within each group, altruists will be at a selective disadvantage relative to their selfish colleagues, but the fitness of the group as a whole will be enhanced by the presence of altruists. Groups composed only or mainly of selfish organisms go extinct, leaving behind groups containing altruists.”

Also, “Darwin then argued that self-sarcrificial behaviour, though disadvantageous for the individual ‘savage’, might be beneficial at the group level: “a tribe including many members who...were always ready to give aid to each other and sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection” (p.166). Darwin's suggestion is that the altruistic behaviour in question may have evolved by a process of between-group selection.”

Is good character being caused by genetic necessities or is it something that correlates with a desired biological outcome?

As the Boston Globe writer explained: “Wilson is not arguing that members of certain species don’t sacrifice themselves for the benefit of their relatives. They do. But it’s his position that kinship and relatedness aren’t essential in causing the development of advanced social behaviors like altruism — that the reason such behaviors catch on is that they’re evolutionarily advantageous on a group level.”

Why are the Darwinians so upset about what Wilson has suggested? Perhaps they see a danger to their theory of basic human selfishness. Perhaps they have trouble accepting that a group has an existence and that it too defines certain moral imperatives. After all, a group, as opposed to a kinship cluster, is not a biological entity. It is a sociocultural entity.

The interest of the group may well coincide with the interest of genes, but this does not necessarily have to be biologically determined. What if, for example, the virtues of loyalty, patriotism, and nobility are meaningful outside of biological imperatives?

1 comment:

wolfwalker said...

"Why are the Darwinians so upset about what Wilson has suggested?"

Because there are a lot of 'Darwinians' who have never actually read all of Charles Darwin's works on evolution, so they don't know the full scope of his theory. Around 1900, a combination of factors led to Darwin being tossed in the back of the biology bus. Starting around 1970, a few people started looking back at Darwin's works and realizing he was a lot sharper than their teachers had given him credit for. A lot of what biologists have been 'discovering' in recent years with ultra-sophisticated genetic analyses and computer modeling, Darwin grasped intuitively over a century ago.