The Evolution of Altruism

Hello again Dr. Borchardt-

I just finished Chapter 11 of TSW but had to stop and write you a note before going further.  I continue to be surprised at how closely the concepts you describe reflect my own your views. There are some differences of course (that’s just the fractal nature of reality :-), but many of these differences seem to be in the semantics.  I guess I’m just amazed to have encountered someone whose beliefs so closely parallel mine (perhaps I just need to ‘get out more’ :-).

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m trying to develop a naturalistic philosophy that explains (at least to myself) the world around me.  Evolution is a key component of course, but Darwinian and neo-Darwinian theories are incomplete.  Your theory of Univironmentalism helps complete the picture (in my opinion).  Being a book that introduces a theory and a philosophy of science, TSW must be broad-based in order to describe the wide-ranging aspects of your theory, and you do provide numerous examples to illustrate your points, but I‘m not finding enough concrete examples to address some of the specific questions or concepts I’ve developed and which I am comparing your theory against.  You’ve been very gracious about responding to my questions in the past so I hope you’ll indulge some additional correspondence (that’s called causality :-).

In the section on Ethics, you discuss Altruism.  I’ve read that altruism deeply perplexed Darwin.  I don’t buy into the neo-Darwinian explanation that there is a gene for altruism, or Dawkins concept that humans are just the gene’s method for getting to the moon.  Rather, I think altruism is an emergent property of a universal ‘force’ (sorry, I still prefer that word- but my connotation is different than yours) which we all evolution. 

I can see a link between altruism and morality which narrows the mystery down to human behavior.  It seems to me that much of morality can be reduced down the Golden Rule- (i.e. do unto others as you would have them do unto you), which most if not all of the world’s religions have some version of.  In thinking about a possible naturalistic (evolutionary) explanation for the Golden Rule, the idea I came up with is that it’s based on causality.  The concept is that a Paleolithic man (living in a world much closer of the rules of the natural world) would decide to not steal something from his neighbor not because it was morally wrong, but because of the potential that his neighbor might come to get it back (with a bunch of his big brothers).  If morality can be linked to the Golden Rule, and the Golden Rule can be linked to causality, then that could provide a naturalistic explanation for morality. 

This idea doesn’t really explain altruism among humans, but perhaps it’s a start or a piece of the explanation.  If altruism could be an emergent property that evolves from causality, then the development of morality among self-conscious organisms would be a natural development, and this could then explain the evidence of altruism among non-human animals.  What do you think?

[Looks like Darwin, the fatalist, was even more perplexed than Dawkins, the solipsist.  Of course, by now you are familiar with my view that everything that exists is a product of evolution (including this sentence).  Your universal “force” actually is universal motion, which actually occurs, unlike “force.”  Your Darwin-Dawkins example is a most excellent demonstration of the two scientific world views that preceded univironmental determinism.  Darwin was guided by the first, classical mechanism, which tended to overemphasize the outsides of things; Dawkins was guided by systems philosophy, which tends to overemphasize the insides of things.  As you surmised, neither Darwin nor Dawkins could give an adequate analysis of the evolution of altruism.  Microcosms survive, not at the behest of only the macrocosm (natural selection) nor at the behest of parts of the microcosm (genes).  Instead, evolution is at all times an interaction between the microcosm and the macrocosm.  The evolution of altruism is a great example of this interaction.  A microcosm survives longest when it exists within a macrocosm that is the least hostile to it.  This is true whether the microcosm is the tool that we keep in the shed to avoid its rusting away or a child watched over by a nurturing family. 

Animals learn altruism for many reasons, but all of them derive from the success of their continued existence, either as individuals or as a group.  Surrounding oneself by friends is a more univironmentally stable act than being surrounded by enemies.  Social animals devise ways of instilling and enforcing group loyalty, with religion, the military, and football being familiar examples.  Survival of the individual microcosm is highly dependent on survival of the group microcosm.  Generally, what works best for the group works best for the individual.  Thus, it is a mistake to consider the individual as a solitary microcosm without considering all the interactions with others that formed its propensity to act.  Dawkins wraps these propensities in little bundles call genes, which as you suggested, cannot be solely responsible for altruism.  A common mistake in understanding altruism is to select the wrong microcosm.  For instance, a worker bee “sacrifices” its life for the colony by stinging an intruder.  This makes no sense when that bee is considered as a solitary individual, but makes perfect sense when the bee is considered as a part of the microcosm of the entire hive.  Attributing “altruism” to the bee would be like attributing “altruism” to your hands when shielding your face from the fists of an attacker.]

Bill K. Howell


Glenn Borchardt said...

A comment from Bill Howell:

Thank for your explanation re: altruism. Your concrete example with the bee helped me see how looking at things from a univironmental perspective can explain specific evolutionary questions. It also made me realize that I was still trying to comprehend it thru the filters of the existing worldviews (I guess paradigm shifts don’t occur overnight :-). While the existence of mutualism and commensalism are easy to explain in evolutionary terms, I felt that altruism represented a distinctly different phenomenon. The univironmental perspective can explain altruism as just another flavor of the ‘biophysiochemical’ behavior that evolution can create.

For example, Wikipedia states that’ ‘vampire bats demonstrate a sense of reciprocity and altruism. They share blood by regurgitation, but do not share randomly. They are most likely to share with other bats that have shared with them in the past and who are in dire need of feeding because bats who haven't fed in three days risk death from starvation’. It must be difficult for evolution to produce a high-metabolism flying mammal of that size which can go longer than 3 days without food, and so bats developed social behaviors such as food-sharing to occupy that niche in a successful/sustainable manner.

Bill Howell

Anonymous said...

I'm thrilled you took the time and said that post!!

Sincerest regards,