Re: Altruism

Tibor Benke (benke@SFU.CA)
Fri, 9 Aug 1996 07:30:48 -0700

At 4:36 a.m. 8/8/96 Dwight Read wrote regarding altruism:

>However, it is not so easy to translate "advantage for a group" into
>individual fitness; e.g., the "tragedy of the commons."

It is only not easy because of the ideological component of neo-darwinism
wich defines group and individual benefit to be neccessarily opposed --
when, in fact, they are only occasionally opposed. I don't really
understand the mathematics, but "advantage of the group" translates to
advantage of the individual at this level: As a "differently abled"
individual, my survival would be unlikely in an unmitigated competitive
situation. But if I do survive, the Androceles scenario is always a

Unless my survival was in some indirect way of use to the survival of other
individuals, whatever the genetic component of the emotions we call
'compassion' or even 'love' would not arise and persist. Being on the
receiving end of the compassion, my survival is not that important, I may
or may not be repaying any aid I receive. But if I perish, I will
certainly be of no use to anyone except if the environment is at full
carrying capacity with respect to my group, in which case my demise will
make room for someone else. Thus we have a range of situations where the
odds of the survival of most individuals will benefit from my survival:
every situation where the group I am in has not filled the 'space'
available. But at a certain level of generality, innovation becomes
frequent enough, so that 'space' is no longer a constant constraint. And
it is precisely at this point, where the Androcales Scenario may arise
through the marginal perspective of marginal individuals.

We also have a set of behaviors programmed for the care of young, which is
already to be generalized to fellows. Add to this that the members of a
given group will be highly geneticly related.

> To put it another way, if generalized behavior is good
>absolutely, then generalized behavior should characterize many primates.
>Since the latter is true, then either generalized behavior is not all that
>good (i.e., only good under certain circumstances) or it cannot occur
>withour a level of brain development not matched by other primtes (i.e., it
>may be a good strategy in general, but can't be realized by other primates).

To put it another way, we see instances of altruism almost every day. It
is corelative with a certain level of brain development. As for it not
being good all the time, well that is what 'intelligence' is all about, to
have a large repetory of possible behaviors and to have the capacity to
determine which one to call on in which circumstance. I can be friendly or
agressive. If I am friendly all the time, people will take advantage of
me. On the other hand, if I am always aggressive, either I will meet my
match who will kill me, or people will gang up on me and chase me away or
kill me. It is of survival value to me to be able to choose between the
behaviors and invoke each at the appropriate time.

The other side of the story might also be, that characteristics persist
only if their complementary trait arises at the same time. It may be, for
example, that you can't have compassion without envy, which would get rid
of anyone taking advantage of compassion. If we are helping someone who
doesn't need it, we feel ripped off. Of course, 'need' is purely culturaly
defined, hence 'relative deprivation'.

To sum up, I come at this problem from the perspective of the Sociology of
Knowledge and the Anthropology of Religion or Consciousness. Karl Mannheim
has pointed out, that Ideology has "the structure of a lie" that is, it is
composed of a number of (many) truths with a few hidden falsehoods. I see
neo-darwinism as ideological. The task at hand is to refine it -- that is
extract the falsehoods by testing the validity of each assertion starting
with those assertions which seem to function to advance the interest of the

We see that neo-darwinism translates at the popular level (at the level of
"vulgar neo-darwinism") to -neo liberalism, american conservatism,
Thatcherism or A. Rand's 'objectivism'. It is why we should begin the
process with the difficulties we have accounting for altruism, (which seems
to require accounting for since we seem to encounter it with some
frequency). We conjecture alternate models that are only slightly
different from what we started with, but are less problematic when altruism
enters the picture, and test those in turn. It should be up to the well
paid scientists to operationalize and design the tests, and what puzzles
me, is why it isn't being done.

Best Regards,

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