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Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others


It’s an important question.  Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others answers it.  Even the Dali Lama and Paul Ekman couldn’t come to a conclusion in Emotional Awareness.  Richard Dawkins argues that there is no “true” altruism in The Selfish Gene.  Robert Axelrod counters in The Evolution of Cooperation that cooperation at least may be adaptive.  Adam Grant in Give and Take explains that givers (those who would be considered cooperating or altruistic) are at the bottom of the pile – and the top.  Clearly, there’s more than meets the eye if there’s such confusion about the space.  It’s on Adam Grant’s recommendation that I picked up Does Altruism Exist? – so I could explore the space and the dynamics.

It’s All About the Motives

So, it’s not like people are denying reality.  They know that sometimes people do things that don’t benefit themselves directly.  The tricky part for those who deny altruism is the motivations.  They argue that altruism must be based on altruistic motives – and that can’t involve benefit to the person.  Even Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene shows where, in some cases, it’s possible that it’s statistically better to save others rather than yourself from a genetic perspective.  Consider a case where you could save four of your biological children but would lose your own life.  This is better for a gene, whose purpose is to reproduce.

The definition of altruism that David Sloan Wilson likes best is the one from William Scott Green: “Intentional action ultimately for the welfare of others that entails at least the possibility of either no benefit or a loss to the actor.”  There is, in this, no mention of motive.  Perhaps there’s a reason.  It’s impossible to know what lies in the hearts of others.  Often, we don’t even know ourselves what motivates us.  (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on this.)

The Characteristics of Altruism

If altruism exists, then what are the conditions that allow it to emerge?  After all, the tragedy of the commons is a frequently used example where bounded rationality of individuals can lead to tragic results for the group.  (See The Difference for more.)  How do we encourage the opposite?  The answer may come from Garrett Hardin in his article about the tragedy of the commons.  The proposed conditions are:

  • Strong group identity and understanding of purpose
  • Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs
  • Collective-choice arrangements
  • Monitoring
  • Graduated sanctions
  • Conflict resolution mechanisms
  • Minimal recognition of rights to organize
  • For groups that are part of larger social systems, there must be appropriate coordination among relevant groups

Given this set of constraints, it appears that prosocial, altruistic behaviors become more common for the good of the group.

Managing the Scale

It may be easier to scale up from Richard Dawkins’ genes to the scope of animals to see how altruism is baked into each of us.  If the individual competitors are the cells in our body, then we can begin to see how altruism doesn’t just occasionally happen – but builds on symbiosis.  The heart, lungs, liver, kidney, and other organs are all in a symbiotic relationship with one another.  None of them can exist without the others.  Each performs a special, differentiated function that the others require.  The network of dependencies ties all of them together inside the context of the animal’s body.

With this lens, we can see that cooperation and symbiotic relationships evolve with parts of the body.  Where it gets interesting is in the role of the immune system.  In the immune system, many of the cells are designed to directly encounter pathogens and engage them in “battle.”  In many of these skirmishes, the immune cell is destroyed.  It quite literally ceases life to combat infection from an invader.  This moves from symbiosis to altruism at a cellular level.

Selfishness Beats Altruism within Groups

All things work at multiple levels.  Inside a group, the selfish win.  Groups that are altruistic as a whole beat out more selfish groups.  It’s at this level that altruistic groups win – not inside the group itself but in competition with other groups.  While directly looking inside a group, it would be hard for us to see a reason for altruism to arise given the advantage of being selfish.  It’s only while looking at the inter-group dynamics that we begin to see that groups with higher degrees of altruism win – thereby preserving altruism.

Prohibitions Against Cheating

One of the key controls that more altruistic groups seem to develop is a prohibition against cheating.  In the ultimatum game, it’s the reason why people punish others.  When the balance gets too far out, it triggers our protections against being taken advantage of.  (See The Selfish Gene.)  This mechanism protects the altruistic from being crushed from within the group before the group can experience the intergroup benefit.

One could easily argue that the probability of developing prohibitions against cheating are very long.  It’s a specific interaction pattern that needs to be developed, and it’s not particularly likely that it will occur.  However, when we move the scale of time out to infinity, we can begin to see that not only can it happen but it will happen.  And because of the utility, one of the times that it does happen it will stick and be present from that point forward.  While we don’t know when humans – and some other animals – learned to punish cheaters, we know it allowed more altruistic groups to develop and for them to win against less altruistic groups.

Systemic Ethics

On the surface, it seems that we want ethics that are embedded into every individual – and certainly we want moral and ethical people.  (See Moral Disengagement for more on morals.)  Ethics, on their surface, seem to be cleanly defined.  However, as Kidder shows in How Good People Make Tough Choices, ethics are often tradeoffs.  Jonathan Haidt, which Wilson credits with his sharing of ethics being system based, explains in The Righteous Mind that the foundations of morality are common to everyone, but the way that we behave when they’re placed in conflict isn’t always the same.  Our societal values and perspectives shape the way that we respond when the foundations are in conflict.

It’s for this reason that we must accept that, while ethics are executed through individuals, their context is set at a collective or societal people.

Prohibited Behaviors, Not People

Forgiveness is an aspect of the broader set of skills that altruistic groups develop.  It’s not that people aren’t excluded for behaving poorly.  However, there must be a way for people to return to the group and the group’s good graces.  The thing that the group must prohibit is the behavior – not the person.  The regaining grace varies from situation to situation and culture to culture, but the concept of forgiveness plays an important role in the ability for individuals to learn the values of the group – and for the group to remain intact.

Belief in Ability

In a random system, the idea that the people that survived knew what they were doing – or know what they’re doing now – is fallacy.  The Halo Effect makes a key point that the world we live in is probabilistic – not deterministic.  That means that it’s not A+B=C but rather that random combinations of A and B often lead to C.  Because of this, it’s entirely possible that completely inept people rise to leadership or fame – and that people with great capabilities, capacity, and value are left in the struggle.  It’s natural to believe that people who are successful got there by talent.  The Organized Mind shares how we’re experiencing too much information and we’re taking ever increasing short cuts to cope.

One of the shortcuts is that if someone was successful before, then they’ll be successful again.  We ignore the work of Lewin that says that behavior (and, by extension, results) is a function of person and environment.  (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality.)  We know the conditions are different, but we expect that the person’s agency will drive the results we want regardless.

The Invisible Hand

Adam Smith believed in an “invisible hand” that guided the markets.  It can be that his invisible hand wasn’t some god-like force but was instead higher-level selection functioning in the market in ways that tended to offset lower-level abuses.  It can be that Adam Smith’s invisible hand is the answer to Does Altruism Exist?