Re: Altruism

David L. Carlson (dcarlson@TAMU.EDU)
Wed, 14 Aug 1996 17:15:51 -0600

> From: Tibor Benke <benke@SFU.CA>
> Subject: Re: Altruism

> 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
> possibility.

You misunderstand Neo-Darwinism. It does not take the position that
the two are always in opposition. Any behavior that promotes the
fitness of the individual is simply to explain in terms of natural
selection. If it happens to benefit the group, fine. It is only
behavior that harms individual fitness, but helps the group that is
difficult to explain in terms of natural selection. This
"altruistic" behavior is therefore a focus of great interest by
evolutionary biologists who attempt to demonstrate that the altruism
is a chimera (i.e., the behavior appears to reduce an individual's
fitness, but it does not). There are three approaches to doing this

1. The behavior harms the individual but it helps enough of his/her
relatives that the fitness of the individuals genome (identical copies
of the individual's genes) is actually enhanced. Therefore this
"altruistic" behavior is actually genetically "selfish." This is
called "kin selection" because natural selection is operating at the
level of kin groups. Kin selection helps to explain examples of
parental altruism (mother distracting the predator, etc) and sibling
altruism (the exteme example is social insects where the workers are
all sterile sisters/daughters of the queen).

2. The behavior harms the individual but it helps a larger breeding
population that the individual belongs to (a deme). Again the
"altruisim" is actually genetically "selfish" because the individual
and his/her offspring are more likely to survive in groups that have
some altruists. "Group selection" can be demonstrated mathematically
to be possible, but there are few concrete examples. The models
indicate that group selection can work only when the group is
demographically closed (no outside immigrants allowed) and extinction
rates for groups are high. If group survival increases as the
proportion of "altruists" increases, then altruism would be selected
for at the group level.

3. The altruistic behavior involves a small cost to the individual,
but delivers a large benefit to the recipient. If at a later time,
the altruistic individual can count on reciprocal assistance, there
would be selection for "reciprocal altruism." Reciprocal altruism
does not require that the individual be able to expect assistance
only from the individual he/she benefitted originally. More likely
the individual lives in a group where reciprocal altruism has a high
likelihood of occurrance. A benefits B who benefits C who, in turn,
benefits A. The simplest requirement for reciprocal altruism is the
ability to recognize individuals so that "altruists" (those who help)
can be distinguished from non-altruists (those who don't). This is
can be greatly facilitated by a method of communication that allows
individuals to communicate their experiences to one another ("X is
stingy and never shares!"). Since the cost of altruism is small and
the benefit is great, this again reduces altruism to enlightened

Neo-Darwinists do not require that any of these methods of selection
be limited to the genome, but they would argue that any are
theoretically possible at the genome level. In other words, it makes
little real difference whether a "reciprocal altruism" allele exists
or human mental capabilities have evolved in such a way as to
make it more likely that the wisdom of reciprocal altruism is

. . . several points deleted . . .

> 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.

This discussion confuses altruism, with compassion, friendliness,
helpfulness. As a topic of interest to evolutionary biologists,
these become altruism only if a cost to individual fitness can be
demonstrated. Being friendly toward someone who could kill me is not
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David L. Carlson ARCH-L Listowner
Anthropology Department Phone: (409) 847-9248
Texas A&M University Telefax: (409) 845-4070
College Station, TX 77843-4352 Internet: