Re: Altruism

Tibor Benke (benke@SFU.CA)
Wed, 7 Aug 1996 05:26:18 -0700

At 3:29 AM Robert Snower Wrote:

>At 10:23 PM 8/1/96 +0000, Dwight W. Read wrote:
>>Cook replies:
>>>Has anyone actually identified an allele for altruism in the human genome?
>>Two issues are raised: (1) is it reasonable to talk about an "altruism
>>allele" at all and (2) in general, has anyone found an allele that links to
>>a specific behavior? I don't know the answer to the latter--in some sense
>>the answer would be yes if one includes behaviors that are associated with
>>genetic disorders. But I think it may be more useful to realize that
>>alleles code for proteins and the way in which proteins are eventually
>>implicted in behaviors is obsviously not a simple one and, in most cases,
>>very indirect. E.g., the protein may be an enzyme which catalyzes a
>>chemical reacting which lead then does ..... and so on until finally one
>>gets to the brain and what it is doing that eventually leads to person X
>>doing Y, which we then observe.
>>D. Read
>Surely it is even more unlikely that there is an allele for "altruism" in
>the abstract, than even there is of an allele for being an "anthropologist"
>in the abstract. The best one might expect is an allele for a specific
>pattern of behavior which is an instance of "altruism." The allele for
>maternal behavior found in mice we were talking about is apparently an
>example of an allele pretty closely linked to a specific pattern of
>behavior. Aren't there many examples of even more specific links? It seems
>to me it would be harder to find an allele correlated to a very abstract
>trait (such as altruism) than to find one correlated to a very specific
>behavior, rather than the reverse. It might be the easiest to find an
>allele for a very specific emotion, such as anger, and then the claim might
>be made that the gene for "aggression" had been found.

Sometimes, for example, when I listen to dialogues on sociobiology, I feel
like the construction worker's assistant on the Tower of Babel on the day
the languages were confused -- everybody seems to be speaking different
languages and thinks they are speaking one language so nothing makes sense.

Words like 'Genes', 'Alelles', 'Phenotypes', 'Genotypes', etc. name
categories in the science of genetics (about which I know very little).
'Grooming', 'display', 'marking', etc. are categories from ethology, (about
which I know even less). 'Altruism', I had thought, was a category from
ethics, a branch of philosophy, until someone gave what I thought a good
definition in terms of the genetic disadvantage of the individual, a
definition that worked in, what one might call, the
ethology-genetics/evolutionary biology context.

Then later, someone spoke of imputed psychological motivations among
Gorrillas for helping individuals.

Now we are back to genes and below that proteins and what they might do.
For sure we are never going to figure out how a protein would make members
of a group of animals 'care' for each other. I think we are not watching
our levels of analysis. Or maybe I am missing something?

But why are we not talking about how primate and hominid behaviors evolved.
Are there people out there with a sufficient familiarity on the literature
of primate ethology to refute the following conjecture:

Primates demonstrate a wide variety of behaviors with respect to any given
index. For example, there may be a range of what one might call
gregariousness, with orangutans at one end and new world monkeys at the
other. Each species has a specific segment of this range. So Orangs
might be from 0-1 on an imaginary scale and spider monkeys would be from
9-10 and chimps are somewhere, and so forth. Further, we may find that
some species have a broader range so that it may turn out that chimp
gregariousness ranges from 3-6. Secondly, whatever the range of the
particular species is, individuals will cover some smaller segment, thus
chimp A might be very gregarious for a chimp -- she might be 6 and chimp Z
might be the "introvert" of the group and be 3. Further, it may turn out
that individuals will range so that depending on motivational factors a 3
might get up to 5 under certain circumstances while a 6 after sufficcient
abuse might become a 4. Now it seems to me that Homo's adaptation has been
*generalization*, that is, the species range approaches the range of the
order and individual range widens and becomes variable with response to
more external factors.

So it seems to me that given the genetic advantage of 'parenting behavior'
(whatever its components might be: sensory capability, processing
capability, behavioral routines, etc.), and the evolutionary strategy of
generalization, one can derive 'altruistic' behavior, and if such behavior
results in better odds of survival for the group, it also results in better
probability of individual survival, thus providing a means of changing
alelle frequencies in the population. The selective pressure may get even
stronger if 'uncooperativeness' is selected against by eliciting
'aggressive behaviors' from members of a group who are cooperative and
expect reciprical cooperation (is this the source of envy?).

It may also be, that it is an advantage for a group to develop a way of
producing some proportion of individuals with different given behavioral
ranges, thus insuring that the group cuts a 'wide swath' in terms of
possible ways of surviving. Besides every individual being omnivarous, for
example, it might be advantagous if individuals had different preferences,
thus spreading the stress on the environment.

So I conjecture that if human behavior is compared to the behavior of
primates it will exhibit the maximum level of generality with respect to
nearly any conceivable behavioral index. This generality will range over
the range of behaviors of several other primate species tending toward
encompassing the entire spectrum of primate possibilities.

It should be possible to model stuff like this now, and I can't believe no
one is doing it. The math, computing expertise, and ethological background
neccessary are well beyond me, or I'd do it myself.

Tibor Benke
Graduate Student (Master's Programme)
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby,B.C. Canada