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Altruism - the great puzzle

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanAugust 26, 2006 10:37 PM


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Like sex, altruism is a great mystery in the life sciences, especially in the case of humans (because of is generous expression). Neither kin selection nor reciprocal altruism seem able to explain the scale of human societies, their cooperativeness, their often unselfish nature. Several years back David Sloan Wilson and Elliott Sober wrote Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior to offer their own model, which works within a multi-level selection paradigm which suggests that cooperation and altruism are favored at the level of groups, above and apart from their benefit to the individual. In my argument with Steve Burton of Right Reason about the role of Christianity on the values and morals of our society these issues have lurked in the background. Steve has made repeated references to the New Testament, and the uniqueness of their ideas. I have repeated several times that though I think Steve has a case, it is very debatable because the extent of x in a text is not entirely quantifiable but captured by a gestalt understanding. A phylogeneticist once told the story of the problem with taxonomy before Willi Hennig's cladist revolution: basically, when two biologists had a disagreemant about a tree, their punchline would be, "because I said so!" There was really no way to dispute objectively these issues before taxonomy became systematic and evolved into Systematics. I have read the New Testament, as well as the Hebrew Bible (the latter multiple times). I am aware of the history of the Classical period in the West, and am reasonably familiar with the outline of history in China, the Middle East, etc. I am not convinced by "I said so," or repetitions of the same point again and again.^* So therefore I think we should look to evolution, psychology and other assorted social sciences. In that spirit, I present to you a series of posts by Dan Jones where he reviews altruism and cooperation from a game theoretic perspective. Here Dan comments on a paper which examines the reality that groups which do not punish freeriders seem to dissolve over the long run. Then, Dan puts the spotlight on a survey of altruism across cultures. Finally, in Beware of Others Dan illustrates why the human sciences are experimental sciences more than a priori reflection or post facto analysis, sometimes they are not anticipated by intuition (see case "BC"). I will quote one of Dan's points:

The first is to note that in all conditions, with mixes of ingroup and outgroup members, there was at least some sharing (altruism) and some punishment (altruistic punishment). In other words, players extended egalitarian norms, even if in a sometimes diluted form, to outgroup members. This is perhaps a problem for theories that see altruism arising through the selective extinction of groups that are less cooperative, and therefore less successful in the long run. Such a process sees differing groups as competing entities, and so they not be expected to include outgroups within sphere of social norms.

My overall contention has been that though the magnitude of altruism may very, it is simply false to imagine humans as pure rational actors, that our "state of nature" is one of all-against-all. The subjects were from two tribes in Papua New Guinea with a non-hostile relationship. The reality of altruism preceded the philosophical systemetization or religious justification of this behavior. Human was not invented, we evolved. * Luke, any repetition of the same arguments you've been making for the past 2 years in a impolite manner will not be looked up positively by me, my patience is running thin with your incivility toward those who do not agree with you.

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