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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005 First Web Papers On Serendip

The Interconnected Nature of Altruism, Culture, and Human Evolution

Rebekah Baglini

As humans consider our long and fascinating evolutionary history, we find a complex story punctuated with millennia-old mysteries, for every question answered another is posed. One of the most intriguing questions for me is that of human ethics: Why do most humans adopt some forms of altruistic behavior, and why does such behavior seem to be beneficial to us from an evolutionary perspective? What can we learn about this development from examining the stories of our more recent humanoid ancestors?

I argue that altruistic behavior and cultural development are codependent and, moreover, have been critical components in the human species' continued survival. The codependance of altruism and culture stems from their mutual emphasis on sharing, since both are fundamentally based on the exchange and interchange of work, ideas and experience.

This process of sharing occurs when humans not only begin exercising our seemingly unique abilities to consider ourselves in different states and times, imagined entities, situations, and stories, and abstract concepts, but also when we begin sharing and expanding our ideas and stories with other humans. Clearly this requires some development of communicative abilities, but what is more important is the presence of a desire to share and cooperate intellectually. It is not difficult to see how this initial kind of intellectual sharing facilitates acts of altruism: it is by communicating and sharing information and ideas that we form emotional attachments to one another, consequently constructing social structures and connections which will encourage cooperation, collaboration, and altruistic behavior.

This idea is illustrated by a controversial but interesting story of our ancestors, the cro magnons, and the Neanderthals. In his book The Neanderthal Enigma (6), James Shreeve presents a theory that explains the Neanderthal's extinction as in part the result of their utter lack of altruistic and cooperative behavior towards other Neanderthals, particularly the females and children of their own clans. Shreeve suggests that the almost-exclusively carnivorous males enjoyed the fruits of hunting and isolated themselves from the females, unless interested in reproductive duties, leaving the females and children to scavenge on their own. Although the Neanderthals were three to four times stronger than modern humans and well-equipped to live in their environment, they seem not to have cultivated much in the way of material culture and the primitive artifacts occasionally discovered and attributed to them are often held as controversial. (Mithin, 145 5). It is the lack of communication and empathy, leading to isolation and weakening of the females, that some scholars cite as at least one factor, and perhaps a primary one, in the evolutionary downfall of the Neanderthal.

This account of the Neanderthals is contrasted with that of their smaller, weaker successors, the cro magnon. With the ascent of the cro magnons came an explosion of intellectual innovation and art, from advances in weaponry and cooperative, group hunting technique to the creation of the first known "Venus" figurines, small sculptures glorifying the female figure, possibly used as instruments in worship. The cro magnon's ability for narrative storytelling is also evidenced by their art: their cave paintings at Lascaux depict intricate tales of large scale hunting expeditions, told like a comic strip starting at the left side and culminating at the other end of the wall with the capture of the animal.

Given the cro magnon's success in survival, in a similar environment to that of the Neanderthal but without nearly the ruggedness or strength of their predecessors, som scholars believe that their ability to share values, experience and artifacts with each otherótheir creation of a cultureómust have had some affect on the cro-magnon's evolutionary success. Their cultural artifacts suggest a highly developed emotional sense, and a desire to share these concepts and stories with others. This would clearly facilitate the formation of social structures and emotional ties within the community.

The establishment of community and culture, and consequently emotional ties and altruistic behavior, could have helped cro magnon survive where the Neanderthals didn't only if their altruistic behavior was subject to evolutionary development. This notion that cooperative, altruistic behavior would ever be naturally selected over selfishness seems counterintuitive at first: since whole process of evolution is based upon selecting individuals who can bear the most offspring, the idea of humans maximizing their own reproductive potential by aggressively taking the best natural resources and mates they can would appear to make more sense. However, as we see every day, the majority of humans value and practice, to varying degrees, altruistic behavior, behavior that does in fact benefit us on an evolutionary level. As Erst Mayr describes in part IV of What Evolution Is, the most common and instinctive form of altruistic behavior, demonstrated in many other species besides humans, are those of a) altruism to benefit own offspring, b) kin selection, and c) altruism within one's social group. Types a) and b) in particular clearly present some benefits to the altruistic actor, in that the preservation of offspring and kin means the preservation of their own genes. Likewise, a strong, safe environment for reproducing is to some degree dependent upon cooperation among members of a social group, thus still presenting an immediate benefit to the altruistic actor. But a 4th type of altruistic behavior, reciprocal helpfulness, may be practiced among very different communities and does not present as concrete or as immediate returns to the initial altruistic agent. (Mayr, What Evolution Is, pp. 257-259 4)

Reciprocal helpfulness is essentially a tit-for-tat model, in which a helpful deed expects a helpful deed in return at some point in the future, and likewise for negative behavior. What is interesting about this model is that it does allow for freeloaders to benefit from the system without necessarily obtaining punishment: it's easy to accept a favor from another and simply never return it. And yet, nevertheless it is possible and, in real-world situations quite probable, that the system of reciprocal helpfulness will end up creating a net benefit for the community, even with the presence of selfish actors.

As is often the case, a picture or, better yet, a model is worth a thousand words. Using Netlogo models developed by the EACH project (1), the necessity of altruism within a group is made startlingly clear. EACH provides three models, each demonstrating a different form of altruistic or cooperative behavior. The first two models facilitate the control of environmental conditions; interestingly, when environmental and certain social conditions are favorable, the non-altruistic players inevitably win in the end. But when the user increases the harshness of the environmental conditions, making the "game" more challenging, it is the altruistic players' traits which keep the community alive, and may eventually lead to the altruistic players even dominating the selfish ones.

In another essay of Mayr's, he explains this phenomenon of ethical behavior being selected: "Kin selection and reciprocal helpfulness in particular will be greatly favored in a social group...One can then perhaps encapsulate the relation between ethics and evolution by saying that a propensity for altruism and harmonious cooperation in social groups is favored by natural selection." (Mayr, "Darwin's Influence on Modern Thought" 3)

As the debate over the story of evolution rages on, it is clear that one of the more incendiary topics is the meaning of evolution for humans. While some are content to call humans "nothing but animals", such a comment strikes others as not only a debasement of what they consider humans' unique and awesome qualities, but a dangerous suggestion that humans need not make ourselves behave more ethically than we perceive animals do.

Reciprocal helpfulness and other altruistic behavior is in fact exhibited in small groups of many other species, as is creativity, use of tools, and innovation. But it is the unique combination of abilities and traits with which humans are equipped which together have allowed us to create our extraordinarily diverse, technologically advanced, emotionally rich cultures, at the same time cultivating a moral sense which has enabled our species to thrive. As we increasingly extend these altruistic feelings not only to our kin or immediate group members, but to our species as a whole, we are further developing a trait that cannot be called anything but uniquely human.


1The Evolution of Altruistic and Cooporative Habits project, 11 February 2005.

2 Ehrlich, Paul. Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. New York: Penguin Press, 2002.

3"Darwin's Influence on Modern Thought", Mayr, Ernst. Based on a lecture delivered 23 September 1999.

4 Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

5 Mithin, Steven. Creativity in Human Evolution and Prehistory. London: Routledge, 1998.

6 Shreeve, James. The Neanderthal Enigma: Solving the Mystery of Modern Human Origins. New York: William Morrow & Co, 1995.

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