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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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Evolution of Altruism

Alexandra Mnuskin

Alexandra Mnuskin
March 2, 2005
Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories
Paper #2

The Evolution of Altruism

To love oneself is a beginning of a lifelong romance.
Oscar Wilde

Does altruism exist? What is altruism to be precise? The dictionary provides two definitions: The first is an "Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness." The second refers to Zoology and defines it as an "instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to the individual but contributes to the survival of the species." Surely then, we must make a distinction between the altruism which is observed in countless species of the animal kingdom and that idealistic "true" altruism that is supposed to be present in only ourselves. To my mind there are really three distinct behaviors that may be called altruistic to different extents. There is the purely selfish altruism of inclusive fitness based on a mathematical model called Hamilton's Rule. There is likewise the mathematically based tit-for-tat altruism that is certainly present in all living species. And then there is human morality and human altruistic behavior. The homo-sapiens have certainly achieved a higher complexity to altruistic behavior. Is this then "true" altruism? Where does it come from and can it be traced to evolutionary origins? Let us first look at the first two simple and straight forward explanations for altruistic behavior. We must start from the small in order to understand the large. From the simple, we will be able to grasp the complex and then perhaps come closer to understanding our own social values and altruistic ideals.

For an individual to be termed "fit" for his environment he has to be able to reproduce and pass his genes to viable offspring. If achieving reproductive success by being personally fit is the struggle for existence then the question of altruism is still an unexplained one. Enter the theory of inclusive fitness. This fitness is not just fitness for yourself, but fitness for your genes, and here we can create a mathematical model for understanding certain altruistic behavior. Apart from the fact that the idea depends on the slightly flawed selfish gene principle postulated by Richard Dawkins it is nevertheless superbly clear and simple. Altruism can be expressed in Hamilton's equation rB > C, where r is the coefficient of the relationship between two individuals, B is the benefit tot the recipient of the altruistic act and C is the cost to the altruist himself, measured in terms of the offspring he could not manage to produce because of his altruistic action. The model explains any altruistic behavior in terms of selfish genes. I do something for you but only if you are a close enough relative and if that relationship combined with the benefit for you, exceeds the cost of my own procreating abilities. This type of behavior is certainly selected for, and has survived to this day (Dunbar, 1988). However it certainly does not explain the human concept of morality or "true" altruism.

Now let us turn to reciprocal altruism, which Daniel Dennett in his Darwin's Dangerous Idea claims "isn't really altruism at all, just enlightened self-interest of one form or another: you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" (Dennet, 1995, p.479). This kind of altruism is illustrated perfectly in the Prisoner's Dilemma game where the computer is programmed to be nice to you if you are nice to it. The two of you are then able to both reap the benefits of niceness. This strategy, called Tit-for-Tat is often observed in nature, animals are nice to each other because they expect something out of it in return (Dennet, 1995).

Tit-for-Tat likewise appears in human societies. We engage in all sorts of activities that may be immediately detrimental to us, like paying taxes, but we do them anyway, expecting everyone else to pay the taxes and be "nice" to us in return. Thus by paying the taxes we can also reap the benefits that go along with this "altruistic" act. This scheme does have one problem. Once one comprehends that the computer is playing Tit-for-Tat, it is possible to beat it and get even more payoff than you could do playing altruistically. Dennett provides the perfect example of a seemingly altruistic society in his description of the Hutterite communities, which exist as human bee colonies and where each member works for a communal good. He goes on to state the difficulties that the upkeep of this society entails quoting a leader of the group, "Again and again we see that man with his present nature finds it very hard to practice true community" (p.474). He goes on to describe the social restrictions that must be implemented in order for the system to function properly. What we have therefore is a "forced" altruism, one that exists because the members of the society try their very utmost to prevent any selfishness. A study done in UCLA examined why it is advantageous to practice altruistic behavior in society and came to the conclusion that "those who play by the rules and contribute to the public good, will be included and out-compete freeloaders" (Sullivan, 2004, p.1). To put it another way, people are exhibit morality in order not to be cast out by society. It is evolutionary advantageous therefore to have ethics, because it is beneficial for everyone in a society to not murder each other. There will always be someone who wants to cheat the system to win more than he could under altruism. In general however, most people don't, for fear of being ostracized from the community.

So here again we have selfishness. If there is no true altruism in human species where then is our humanity. Dennet struggles with the idea of attributing human morals to an evolutionary algorithm. To him human beings are too complex for one to be able to explain their altruistic-like behavior on biological terms. To me however there is no danger in searching for the origins of morality. In fact it is those very origins that to me prove our uniqueness as humans.

What is it that separates us from other creatures who also exhibit altruistic behavior? The answer is crystallized in a story of a man jumping into a fire to save people he does not even know. What is it that enables him to risk himself for people he is not related to, for people he cares nothing about? In such a situation, there is no time for analysis, no time for weighing pros and cons. It is simply an instinctual altruistic act. For an instant the suffering and experience of those people must have passed before his eyes. Why? Because his superbly developed neo-cortex allows him to see this story before it happens. He can imagine himself in that same circumstance; he can anticipate the pain and social chastising he would experience if he did not rush to their aid and he can likewise already imagine that feeling of self-worth, and nobleness that goes along with doing a good deed. Yes, it is still not "true" altruism. It is still a selfish act. As my fortune cookie last night very humorously points out, "our first love and last love is self love". However, despite the fact that I am resigned to a rather pessimistic view on altruism, namely that truly self-less acts do not actually exist, I am still able to be in awe of the human mind and story-telling ability.

Works Cited

Dennet, D. (1995). Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Dunbar, R.I.M. (1988). Primate Social Systems. Chapman & Hall: London and Cornell
University Press: Ithaca.
Sullivan, M. (2004, November) UCLA Study Points to Evolutionary Roots of Altruism,
Moral Outrage. Ascribe Health News Service [Online] 24 paragraphs. Available:

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