Sunday, August 12, 2007

Selfish Bastards, Every One

Now and then I've fielded questions — in interviews, private e-mails, maybe even here in the 'crawl — about my reductionist take on human nature. In particular, a lot of folks are not comfy with my dissing of altruism, which (if it ever does arise in a population) is likely to get weeded out real fast because Hey, who's going to leave more offspring to the next generation: the selfless doof who gives up his life jacket on the Titanic or the selfish bastard who takes it for himself?

Seems pretty straightforward to me, but it seems to give pause to a lot of folks (I even recently received an e-mail on the subject from the legendary Ted Chiang). What about Mothers who rescue their babies from burning buildings? some of the most egregiously out-clued might ask (A: Kin selection, dummies). What about people who willingly die for their countries or for their religious beliefs? (Yeah, and if Christ had said "Do unto others, turn the other cheek, walk the second mile and in the end you'll go to hell anyway", I'm sure the Christians would've just been lining up to go one-on-one with the lions.) What about people who just act out of the goodness of their hearts and help out those who are not so fortunate, even if they're athiests or unrelated to the beneficiary? (Ah, you mean reciprocal altruism. That's done in expectation of a payoff somewhere down the road— and remind me to scribble a post at some point reviewing what we do to people who accept our kind gestures and then don't reciprocate...)

Yeah, well, um— yeah, what about people who give to panhandlers, or volunteer for good causes even though there's no way some rubby or Malawian foster-child will ever be able to return the favour?

Hmmm.

This last challenge never really shook my position much. I can rattle off "status enhancement/increased mating opportunities" as fast as the next guy. Still, I wasn't aware of any actual studies on humans that backed it up. But now there is one, courtesy of the niggardly cocksuckers at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, who — despite my online access privileges as a postdoctoral fellow at a major academic institution — still want to charge me $30 before letting me see any more than the abstract. Screw that. Fortunately there's a layperson-friendly summary in The Economist. So here's the he-said/she-said version:

Men, like most male mammals, like to acquire resources. When they're not especially horny, they're as likely to go for furniture and big-screen TVs — i.e., major, nonportable items that remain in the home — as anything else. When they're horny, however, they'd rather buy bling and fast cars — flashy stuff they can take on the road to attract mates. Also, when in a horny mood, they're more likely to give publicly to panhandlers (also to indulge in risky/heroic behaviour). In other words, both conspicuous consumption and conspicuous generosity are just ways of attracting mates: hey baby, lookit me! I've got so much money I can just give it away!...

Women are no better. They aren't so much into resource acquisition as they are into volunteer work and do-gooding social causes — and once again, when they're not thinking about sex, they don't really care what kind of good they're doing. When horned up, however, women show a distinct preference for conspicuous do-gooding (working in a homeless shelter, for example), while shying away from other kinds (e.g., going off on their own and picking up garbage in a ravine).

So once again, behaviour that seems noble at first glance turns out to be stone self-serving upon closer examination: another brand of faux altruism that has far more in common with peacock's tails and wattles on chickens than with any spark of divine generosity. What's more, the nature of our displays breaks down along the same stereotypic r/K selection lines that have always (understandably) driven feminists up the wall because seriously, who really wants to believe that sex-is-destiny shit anyway?

Not that this should come as news to anyone. (Have any of the men in the audience ever been targeted by a street vendor with an armload of overpriced roses when they weren't in the company of a woman?) Still, it's nice to see actual data backing up the just-so story.

Now, anybody know of any cases of Human altruism that haven't been exposed as kin selection or sleazy get-laid strategies?

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37 Comments:

Blogger scribblercraig said...

See, it's a fair point you make, but at the same time, I'd like to think that not everyone of the six billion on the planet are complete gits.

And here's an example of kindness:

http://www.buzzmachine.com/2007/07/31/sustaining-journalism-through-innovation/

(Basically the Economist - hardly a liberal mag - set up a project for the future of journalism and it turned out that the project group tried to improve everyone's lot.

As Jeff Jarvis notes: "This gives me hope for the essential character of mankind: Give smart people play money and they’ll use it to improve the lots of others. Mind you, I’m all for improving the world. We all should give it a try."

And I know you'll have theories as to why people do these things...but still, let me have some damn comfort blanket eh?

August 12, 2007 at 5:12 PM  
Blogger Pharaohmagnetic said...

Maybe no one knows of such cases of Human Altruism because they're secretive by nature. Yes it's a circular example, along the lines of "The conspiracy theory must be true because no evidence of it exists!"
So, consider it as a proposition: I know of a guy who says his friend's cousin's roommate's great uncle performs all sorts of acts of totally anonymous charity. He sends anonymous donations to people who will never discover the identity of their mysterious benefactor. He dons on a costume (full underwear pervert regalia), rescues orphans from fires, and dashes off into the night without so much as an introduction. You don't know about his "true" selfless altruism because he doesn't broadcast the knowledge, not even to his close associates. Actually, everyone thinks he's the town miser. What good does that do for his genes, I ask? Assuming he exists?

Then, there's always the weird Japanese guy who drops wads of cash in public toilets:

Link

But I guess his motivations are clear.

August 12, 2007 at 5:24 PM  
Blogger Brenda said...

So I take it that you are a proud supporter of Bush/Cheney then Peter? Because that would be the logical inference wouldn't it. No? hummmmm... could be an error in your calculations then.

August 12, 2007 at 7:34 PM  
Blogger AR said...

I came in to say about the same thing Pharaohmagnetic said: if truly altruistic people do exist, they'd probably make it difficult for anyone to find out about them. You might know one, and not even know it. It's kind of like current and former members of US SOCOM; if one tells you his is one without being asked, he isn't, and probably isn't even if you did ask him. My father works with someone at the Post Office who is a retired Navy SEAL (my father knows this because he is a supervisor and has reviewed that employees records), but if you ask him what he did in the Navy he'll tell you he was a cook.

Though, I am reminded of a teenager who got heroic during the recent bridge collapse: apparently he removed children from a school bus that had become stuck next to a burning fuel truck, even though the truck could have exploded at any moment and children aren't even really people anyway. Afterwards, he deliberately avoided attention related to the matter, even declining an invitation to the White House.

August 13, 2007 at 2:22 AM  
Blogger David Louis Edelman said...

I think the standard evolutionary psychology response to the question of altruism is that we have certain behaviors ingrained in us because they benefit the species as a whole.

In other words, we are naturally inclined towards altruistic behaviors that increase our chances of survival as a species. Both the selfish bastard and the self-sacrificing soul survive in the long run because they both work as mechanisms for increasing the species.

In other other words, if human beings were all completely selfish bastards we wouldn't last long. But we wouldn't last long if we were all completely selfless either. It's the mix of the two types that's proven a good strategy.

ar said: "My father works with someone at the Post Office who is a retired Navy SEAL... but if you ask him what he did in the Navy he'll tell you he was a cook."

ar, your father works with Stephen Seagal?! Cool.

August 13, 2007 at 4:26 AM  
Blogger Ted said...

Hey Peter. I have no problem with the idea that pure altruism offers no selective advantage. It's just that it seems that you often seem to describe (perhaps just for rhetorical effect) any behavior other than pure altruism as pure selfishness, or occasionally even as sociopathy. I think reciprocal altruism can be usefully distinguished from pure selfishness, and warrants the term "altruism." There is certainly an argument to be made that reciprocal altruism should be renamed "pure selfishness" and what most people think of as pure selfishness should be renamed "unsubtle selfishness," but I think that's an argument that needs to be made more explicitly and at greater length than by classifying people as either selfless doofs and selfish bastards.

As for pure altruism, I think that the occasional example can be found (e.g. the guy in New York who jumped in front of a subway train to rescue a stranger), but I don't think they pose a big problem to the idea that reciprocal altruism underlies our notions of morality. They're just excesses of the behavioral rules that underly reciprocal altruism; the instincts don't have to be infallible for every single individual for them to provide a selective advantage to the species as a whole.

August 13, 2007 at 4:31 AM  
Blogger Ted said...

An elaboration on David's comment:

if human beings were all completely selfish bastards we wouldn't last long. But we wouldn't last long if we were all completely selfless either.

More specifically, it's a matter of resistance to invasion by alternative strategies. The problem with universal altruism isn't that it automatically leads to extinction; it's that a population that practices it is vulnerable to exploitation by individuals who practice selfishness. Likewise, universal selfishness doesn't automatically lead to extinction, but a population that practices it can be outcompeted by cooperating populations. What makes reciprocal altruism effective is that it is good at resisting incursions by alternative strategies.

Reciprocal altruism isn't perfect; there are some strategies that outperform it in simulations. Reciprocal altruism's advantage is that it is simpler, and hence more likely to evolve, than the other strategies.

August 13, 2007 at 5:07 AM  
Blogger Legba said...

The big problem people have when confronted with the, arguably valid point of real altruism not existing is that it is often subconscious. They haven't made the conscious decision to go help in a homeless shelter to look good, some maybe to but that's beside the point, they honestly think they're doing something out of the goodness of their hearts. They retain the illusion of being in control. It's logical step for them to refuse the argument if they don't want to realize that their ego, their big voice on top, really isn't on top of things.
Of course there are people who are stupid or naive enough to take values like nobility seriously and really go off and put themselves on fire or commit suicide because their honor demands it of them.

August 13, 2007 at 8:46 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

--Even if you are not expecting a returned favor at some point (reciprocal altruism) altruism still has benefits for the individual.

The non-jargonistic version:
Normal people have empathy. Empathy makes you feel bad when you see other people in pain. Therefore, to stop yourself feeling bad, you do things to make the other people feel better.

This can be extended to pretty much any instance of altruism. If I rush into a burning building to save a random baby, it is because I would feel worse if I let that baby die.

Now, whether empathy is a social construction or another product of mirror neurons is another basket of fish entirely.

At any rate, I don't think it matters WHY people do good things for each other; the point is that we do them.

August 13, 2007 at 11:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who cares why somebody is nice to you - to get attention, to be liked, because they're overly-genetically-determined, because they've been taken in by some theory about being nice being good for you... whatever. If they're nice, they're nice - don't knock it!

If I had a google account I'd be writing this purely to get attention, but damn it, it's going to have to be anonymous. Why do I bother?!

August 13, 2007 at 11:51 AM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

Regardless of whether or not you're right PW, I think Nelson Muntz said it best: "Hey, some of us prefer illusion to despair!" So I'm going to keep on pretending the conundrum of altruism doesn't exist.

And as for some examples of truly self-sacrificing persons, who do are (for obvious reasons) not in it for kin selection and are committing acts of agape or whatever you prefer to call it does this ring any bells?

August 13, 2007 at 12:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Man, this thread is getting way more attention than I expected. Cool.

I'm going to cherry pick some comments to metacomment on, but up front I just want to state for the record that I'm perfectly willing to grant that acts of real altruism may exist, in our species and in others— just as I'm willing to grant that some of the fish in the Springfield Reservoir have three eyes. After all, natural selection only works if there are variants in the population to select between, and much of that variation is randomly generated— so even if altruism in humans were entirely genetic (and I don't believe it is), there's no reason why it couldn't crop up now and again. The question is whether altruism (or trinocular vision) is adaptive. I say no, because it gets exploited for the benefit of other organisms (Ted points this out above). I guess I kind of invite caricature with headings like "Selfish Bastards, Every One", but I'm not really saying that we're all complete gits; I'm just saying that the gits generally do better than the rest of us.

And let me add that I state this from personal experience. I, myself, am an "altruist" of sorts. I wish I wasn't because it keeps getting me screwed over, but it's harder than you might think to shake a Baptist upbringing. At one point I was ready to break my Blindsight contract with Tor because they'd twice failed to credit the person who took my author photo for the Behemoth books — the second time after I'd been reminding them every couple of weeks to please remember the photo credit this time. I wanted them to make some kind of amends— erratum stickers, an apology on their web site, a couple hundred bucks out of petty cash as a token of regret for using this person's work without crediting it— and they told me to piss off. So I was going to break my contract and leave them hanging, even though it would have hurt them not at all and would have completely killed whatever career I had. I was going to do this out of principle. And the wild thing is, the actual victim of Tor's ball-dropping was perfectly happy with the token our-bad letter she got. I was ready to end my career with a symbolic protest over an injustice that the victim didn't even really care that much about.

I didn't, ultimately— not because I thought better of it, but because my partner of eight years decided to dump me at just that moment. She had a number of reasons for doing that, but one of them was "I'm not going to stand by and be all supportive while you put a gun to your head professionally". All the fight went out of me then. I just kind of sagged into the nearest corner with a whumph and sat staring at the floor fore a couple of months. But if that hadn't happened, I would have killed my career to protest a minor injustice inflicted on someone else.

That's altruism. And I wish the hell I could stop.

I will now fend of questions from the audience.

scribblercraig said...

(Basically the Economist - hardly a liberal mag -


(Actually, the Economist holds some pretty progressive views on social and scientific issues. I just wish they'd stop acting as though economics was some kind of science based on natural law, as opposed to a game of Dungeons and Dragons for MBAs. How they got the rulers of the world to believe that pork-belly futures have greater reality than photosynthesis, I'll never know.)

... set up a project for the future of journalism and it turned out that the project group tried to improve everyone's lot.

As Jeff Jarvis notes: "This gives me hope for the essential character of mankind: Give smart people play money and they’ll use it to improve the lots of others. Mind you, I’m all for improving the world. We all should give it a try."


Except that both Jarvis and the folks in the Economist project he cites figured altruism wouldn't ultimately work; the researchers were talking about advertising revenue, and Jarvis's class will henceforth be told that their businesses must be profitable.

And I know you'll have theories as to why people do these things...but still, let me have some damn comfort blanket eh?


Nope. If I can't sleep at night, nobody can.


Pharaohmagnetic said...

Maybe no one knows of such cases of Human Altruism because they're secretive by nature. Yes it's a circular example, along the lines of "The conspiracy theory must be true because no evidence of it exists!"


No, actually, I think that's perfectly legit. Even my no-altruists stance can be vulnerable to charges of circularity, or at least, unfalsifiability: if you hand me a case of definitive altruistic behaviour with no genetic or reciprocal payoff, I can always say "Well, behaving generously made her feel good, which is a kind of payoff, so she can't be a real altruist because real altruists have to feel really shitty about their generous behaviour. Handwaveyness can be a real weakness in these little diatribes of mine.

But accepting your proposition about the underwear-pervert great uncle, my two questions would be a) does he really consider himself anonymous where it counts, or does he think God is watching him? Remember alleged Christ's alleged story about the Widow's might (or mite— you know, the one with the ostentatious Pharisee vs the poor old gal in the temple). Christians believe that you get extra brownie points in the eyes of the Lord if you keep your good works to yourself.

Question b) is, if pervert uncle does not have religious beliefs which would explain this behaviour, is this behaviour adaptive? I would guess not, but that doesn’t mean it doesn't happen. See my Peter-the-Martyr story above...


Brenda said...

So I take it that you are a proud supporter of Bush/Cheney then Peter? Because that would be the logical inference wouldn't it. No?


No. I don't actually follow your reasoning here, Brenda. I accept the fact of the holocaust too, but that hardly means I'm an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis...

David Louis Edelman said...

I think the standard evolutionary psychology response to the question of altruism is that we have certain behaviors ingrained in us because they benefit the species as a whole.

Actually, that's a pretty common misconception, but natural selection doesn’t work at the species level. Phenotypic selection occurs at the level of the individual, and since individuals of the same species are frequently in competition with each other — over food, mates, territory, what have you — a successful organism is going to be far more likely to say "Screw the rest of the species; I'm getting mine". There's a whole whack of experimental studies that back this up; organisms pretty consistently choose their own interests over that of the species at large.

That said, though, my understanding is that group selection is coming back into vogue— at least in certain contexts— so who knows...


Ted said...

Hey Peter. I have no problem with the idea that pure altruism offers no selective advantage. It's just that it seems that you often seem to describe (perhaps just for rhetorical effect) any behavior other than pure altruism as pure selfishness, or occasionally even as sociopathy. I think reciprocal altruism can be usefully distinguished from pure selfishness, and warrants the term "altruism."

OK, I'm with up until that last point. Why does it warrant the term "altruism" if it isn't in fact, altruistic?

As for pure altruism, I think that the occasional example can be found (e.g. the guy in New York who jumped in front of a subway train to rescue a stranger), but I don't think they pose a big problem to the idea that reciprocal altruism underlies our notions of morality. They're just excesses of the behavioral rules that underlie reciprocal altruism; the instincts don't have to be infallible for every single individual for them to provide a selective advantage to the species as a whole.

Again, with you except for the "species as a whole" bit. I'd rather phrase it as strategies that work to promote inclusive fitness more often than not, even if sometimes they kick in inappropriately.

An elaboration on David's comment:

More specifically, it's a matter of resistance to invasion by alternative strategies. The problem with universal altruism isn't that it automatically leads to extinction; it's that a population that practices it is vulnerable to exploitation by individuals who practice selfishness.

Yes! Exactly! Sociopaths cannot thrive except in the presence of available dupes! I wish I'd made that point myself— it's an important one.

Likewise, universal selfishness doesn't automatically lead to extinction, but a population that practices it can be outcompeted by cooperating populations. What makes reciprocal altruism effective is that it is good at resisting incursions by alternative strategies.

Reciprocal altruism isn't perfect; there are some strategies that outperform it in simulations.


This is news to me: I thought tit-for-tat, with benefit-of-the-doubt as a starting behaviour, outperformed everything. What are these alternate strategies of which you speak?

Legba said...

The big problem people have when confronted with the, arguably valid point of real altruism not existing is that it is often subconscious. They haven't made the conscious decision to go help in a homeless shelter to look good, some maybe to but that's beside the point, they honestly think they're doing something out of the goodness of their hearts.


And this is doubtless true of pretty much every sophisticate behaviour in every complex creature. Does a bird build a nest because it's cognitively aware that without one, future offspring will be at a huge disadvantage, or does it build a nest because it just feels good to do so? Sex feels good (for most of us, anyway) for the same reason.


Sarah said...

At any rate, I don't think it matters WHY people do good things for each other; the point is that we do them.


Respectfully disagree. "Why" is always important. It leads to insight, and I think we're generally better off knowing than not.

As a species, anyway...

Anonymous said...

If they're nice, they're nice - don't knock it!


Oh, I'm not knocking it. I'm just trying to figure out how it can make me ric— er, less poor.

If I had a google account I'd be writing this purely to get attention, but damn it, it's going to have to be anonymous. Why do I bother?!


I don't know, but I'm glad you dropped by anyway.


Nicholas said...

And as for some examples of truly self-sacrificing persons, who do are (for obvious reasons) not in it for kin selection and are committing acts of agape or whatever you prefer to call it does this ring any bells?

None at all, I'm afraid. I'm not even sure what that is. An outtake from Iron Chef?

August 13, 2007 at 3:36 PM  
Blogger AR said...

Looks like one of those Buddhist monks who protested during the Vietnam War. Bear in mind that while they DO have religious beliefs that imply they are not dying permanently, they are still enduring quite a bit of suffering in the process, and do not believe that the result of doing so will be some eternal reward that makes it worth it.

August 13, 2007 at 5:28 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Oh, right. Of course.

But don't their beliefs include a scale of karmic promotion -- you do good in this life, you come back as Bill Gates' accountant in the next one?

August 13, 2007 at 5:41 PM  
Blogger Brenda said...

I think the study you were looking for can be found on Geoffrey Miller's web site.

I don't know, there seems to be some pretty heavy duty opposition to evolutionary psychology and I don't feel competent to decide who is right or not. Sometimes Peter plays a little lose with the facts. He is a SF author after all. He is not my god and I'm certainly not going to take everything on his say so. Sooo... frankly it seems like a bit of an extreme position to me. I'm undecided.

August 13, 2007 at 6:27 PM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...


The question is whether altruism (or trinocular vision) is adaptive. I say no, because it gets exploited for the benefit of other organisms (Ted points this out above).


Pure altruism may not be adaptive....but it doesn't have to be nonadaptive either (or stupid, for that matter).

If truly altruistic persons do exist it doesnt mean they couldnt also be sufficiently intelligent to recognize it when someone is trying to selfishly exploit their good will.

August 13, 2007 at 7:31 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Brenda said...

I think the study you were looking for can be found on Geoffrey Miller's web site... there seems to be some pretty heavy duty opposition to evolutionary psychology and I don't feel competent to decide who is right or not. Sometimes Peter plays a little lose with the facts. He is a SF author after all. He is not my god and I'm certainly not going to take everything on his say so.

That's as it should be. This would be a pretty boring 'crawl if nobody ever told me I was full of shit.

That said, though, even this Miller fellow seems heavily into the evo-psych mindset. I know there's some opposition to the sociobiology perspective, but in my experience such opposition falls into two categories: 1) It's all handwavey just-so stories that sound good but can't be proved, and b) It mustn't be, therefore it isn't. Objection 1 has some meat on its bones but gets weaker every year, because the data keep coming in and we keep turning out to be not so special after all; the very paper that kicked off this post is a case in point. Objection 2 is pure fallacy; some people want to believe that they're a noble creation made in God's image and reject grubbier alternatives not because they have any contrary data, but because they find it personally unpalatable.

When you come right down to it, there really shouldn't be anything controversial about evo-psych (although I'd rather call it by its rightful name, sociobiology); it's nothing more than the application of the same evolutionary principles to humans that we apply to every other species on the planet. To arbitrarily decide that we are somehow exempt from those processes is more than arrogant; it's downright delusional.


David B. Ellis said...

Pure altruism may not be adaptive....but it doesn't have to be nonadaptive either (or stupid, for that matter). If truly altruistic persons do exist it doesn't mean they couldn't also be sufficiently intelligent to recognize it when someone is trying to selfishly exploit their good will.

This is a good point — but remember, natural selection doesn't care about motives, only actions. In a sense it doesn't matter whether the altruist is smart or dumb; it doesn't matter whether the beneficiary is a sociopathic asshole or a truly grateful guy without an exploitative bone in his body. If the altruist pays a cost, and the beneficiary, er, benefits, then the inequality will weigh against the altruist.

Which means, now that I think of it, that I probably can't get away with dismissing acts in which the only payoff is a good feeling, or in which people expect a payoff (such as a reward in heaven) that never materializes. Motives don't matter. So at least in evolutionary if not psychological terms, altruist do exist. (Although at least in the case of organized religion, you could always reframe such altruists as the victims of very effective parasites in funny hats, and nobody would characterize parasitism as altruistic behaviour.)

August 13, 2007 at 11:47 PM  
Blogger Ted said...

Why does it warrant the term "altruism" if it isn't in fact, altruistic?

At the broadest philosophical level, I would counter with, "Why do we have so many different words for things, when they're all just examples of atoms moving around?"

Even though animals and plants and non-living matter are all the same at some level, it's often useful to distinguish between them. Likewise, even though giving to the poor and stealing from the poor can both be considered ultimately selfish behaviors, it's often useful to distinguish between the two. I realize that many people don't perceive those two behaviors to be remotely alike, and you're trying to point out the underlying similarity to them, which is an important point. But the realization that all things are made of the same atoms doesn't render all other categories meaningless. As you yourself point out, the lack of a conscious expectation of a payoff is an important distinction. That's why the term "altruism" is useful.

Again, with you except for the "species as a whole" bit. I'd rather phrase it as strategies that work to promote inclusive fitness more often than not, even if sometimes they kick in inappropriately.

Agreed; it was careless of me to use the words "species as a whole."

This is news to me: I thought tit-for-tat, with benefit-of-the-doubt as a starting behaviour, outperformed everything. What are these alternate strategies of which you speak?

My earlier comment included a link to an article about the 2004 Prisoner's Dilemma tournament, in which a team from the University of Southampton defeated tit-for-tat through the use of colluding players. It looks like there's some debate over how significant this victory is in theoretical terms, but the broader point I wanted to make was that reciprocal altruism isn't necessarily unbeatable. A better example is tit-for-two-tats, which Axelrod found could outperform tit-for-tat in some situations; however, tit-for-two-tats performs very poorly in other situations. Which strategy is best depends on the specifics of the situation, but tit-for-tat performs well overall. (For those wanting to know more, see this article for a good introduction.)

August 14, 2007 at 2:29 AM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

But don't their beliefs include a scale of karmic promotion -- you do good in this life, you come back as Bill Gates' accountant in the next one?

I think you're thinking of Hinduism...that particular pic is of Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk who calmly got out of his car, poured gasoline over himself, and then self-immolated in front of crowds of onlookers. I believe that particular picture won the Pulitzer that year.

While technically a Dharmic religion, Buddhists shy away from theism. This particular monk was protesting the persecution of his religion, and does not (indeed, it is explicitly stated in his religion that he would not) be rewarded for such actions.

Also, how could you possibly think such a post on the reality of altruism wouldn't garner such attention?

August 14, 2007 at 11:01 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Thanks, Nicholas. For someone who disses religion as much as I do, you'd think I'd be a bit more clued-in to some of these facts. Fortunately I have you all to set me straight.

Also, how could you possibly think such a post on the reality of altruism wouldn't garner such attention?

Well, for one thing, it's soft and gooshy social science stuff-- not hard-edged bleeding edge material like zombie detectors and ftl prototypes. And secondly, I didn't expect it to be all that controversial; I thought of it as basically just another piece in a puzzle that's already 80% completed, no real surprise. You gotta remember that I've spent most of the past three decades hanging around with biologists; amongst my own type, this stuff is taken for granted. We only get excited when some new piece of data doesn't accord with the standard model.

August 14, 2007 at 11:19 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Peter, I wonder if you are aware of the work of Ernst Fehr at the University of Zurich. His work on altruism and reputation (see the Nature article 425, 23 Oct 2003 issue) shows how altruism may evolve in species. Although his work has an economics bent, it surely maps over to general biological systems 9and humans in particular).

I wonder what you think of the studies?

August 14, 2007 at 3:33 PM  
Anonymous Reinhart said...

I'll use myself as an example where this generality breaks down a little, but not as evidence of selflessness. I am not terribly attracted to the aquisition of material goods. I value comfort and security, but focus most of my energies on the less tangible rewards of art and invention.

I will fully admit that I hope it will improve my chances of acquiring a mate, but my perspective is that attracting a woman isn't terribly difficult depending on what qualities you're hoping to attract. My hopes is that my behaviors and actions will specifically attract those who naturally share my interests and qualities.

This seems to suggest I'm an intellectual only because I'm attracted to intellect, and that conclusion doesn't especially bother me.

August 15, 2007 at 2:21 PM  
Anonymous Matt Jarpe said...

It isn't a great idea to take the notion of evolutionary adaptation too far when talking about human behavior. Humans are rather poorly evolved, as anyone with a bad back, impacted wisdom teeth or who has birthed a child will attest. And human behavior is probably the worst example of adaptation. We got these big brains so we could hurl rocks at gazelles. There is no adaptive advantage to supercharging the brain so that it can produce "Being and Nothingness." That we used these brains to overrun the planet is just one of those happy accidents of which life is a supreme architect.

Altruism might not be an adaptive behavior but more of a by product of our manufacture of a "self" inside our minds. I create a "self" that is a good person, based on my own definition of good. I might consider a good person one who does good things for me. Therefore the "self" I create does good things for others.

August 15, 2007 at 4:05 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Dan said...

Peter, I wonder if you are aware of the work of Ernst Fehr at the University of Zurich. His work on altruism and reputation (see the Nature article 425, 23 Oct 2003 issue) shows how altruism may evolve in species. Although his work has an economics bent, it surely maps over to general biological systems and humans in particular).

I wonder what you think of the studies?


I used Fehr's findings on oxytocin in a couple of places (a smidgen of Blindsight, a chunk of a story I just sent off), but I wasn't aware of his larger work on cooperative behaviour until you pointed it out to me. I've looked over a few pieces with his name on it now, including the review article you mentioned (which I've posted here, for anyone who wants to check it out; the article Ted cites above is also pretty cool).

Interesting stuff. I see his group analyzes human behaviour in terms of reciprocity, cooperation, and— significantly— the punishment of those who don't cooperate. They seem to use "altruism" almost synonymously with "co-operation", even describing punishing behaviour as "altruistic" because it inflicts a cost on the inflictor. (I would have thought that a benefit to the recipient would also be a necessary part of the concept.) And they seem to conclude — albeit with a lot of caveats about all the work yet to be done — that large-scale cooperative/altruistic behaviour only persists in the presence of punishment and reputation-building. (Another paper with Fehr's name on it shows how "parochialism" — ingroup/outgroup tribal prejudice, basically — affects how punishment and cooperation is meted out. It seems a small and extremely ironic step to the suggestion that we owe at least part of human "altruism" to racism.) They invoke group selection, but of a cultural, nongenetic sort. Fair enough. And while their models do explain a lot for small groups, they bemoan their inability to explain the massive multiplayer forms of altruism we humans display on larger scales.

I have a couple of bones to pick with this. Firstly, even if we do behave altruistically on massive scales (and I'm not granting that yet), I don't necessarily see a problem with the fact that many of the models that describe it only work with small groups. Our social circuitry evolved when small groups were the standard social setup; human behaviour is rife with holdovers that worked on the prehistoric savannah but have scaled up to the 21rst Century even though they're now maladaptive (sugar addiction, anyone? Insatiable resource acquisition?) But more fundamentally, Fehr and Fischbacher state explicitly in their review that what makes human altruism unique is its "strong reciprocity" — a term they describe as "a combination of altruistic rewarding ... and altruistic punishment," neither of which strikes me as especially altruistic.

This discussion has changed my position a bit, though. I've been convinced that motivation doesn't matter, only payoff — so those Christian folks who turn the other cheek and give all that they have to the poor are behaving as altruists, even though they think they're doing it for a great reward in Heaven. (As opposed to that other breed of Christian — you know, the ones who burn unbelievers at the stake, diddle altar boys, and accumulate obscene amounts of wealth while delivering sermons on the virtues of poverty.) There are probably even stable equilibria in there: selfish folks need good-hearted folks to exploit, and so good-hearted folk may persist in vast numbers the same way that cows do, and for essentially the same reason. And Ted's right; we might as well call these people altruists, because they require a label, and my own definition was so strict that it wouldn’t have really applied to anyone else anyway.

BTW, has anyone seen the "Robot Chicken" Vignette comparing the exploits of "Jason and the Argonauts" with those of "Jesus and the Argonauts"? The best illustration of "how altruism steers you wrong" evar.

August 15, 2007 at 4:48 PM  
Anonymous david ellis said...


They seem to use "altruism" almost synonymously with "co-operation", even describing punishing behaviour as "altruistic" because it inflicts a cost on the inflictor. (I would have thought that a benefit to the recipient would also be a necessary part of the concept.)


That brings up a pretty significant oversight we seem to have made in this discussion:

so far as I can remember, you didn't actually define altruism in your post and no one else really has either.

It would probably be helpful if we had a precise definition of what it is we're talking about.

August 15, 2007 at 6:44 PM  
Anonymous Branko Collin said...

What about gays?

"Now, anybody know of any cases of Human altruism that haven't been exposed as kin selection or sleazy get-laid strategies?"

Er, you just posted a whole list under the heading "When Not Horny".

Also, why the dichotomy? You make it sound like horny is bad.

Just trying to help,

August 16, 2007 at 9:39 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

david ellis said...

It would probably be helpful if we had a precise definition of what it is we're talking about.

Yeah, okay. I'm defining altruism in the biological sense, i.e., an act which benefits the recipient at a cost in inclusive fitness to the altruist. "Inclusive fitness" is measured in terms of the individual's genes, not merely the chassis, and it encompasses blood relatives — so that when Haldane said "I would gladly lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins" he wasn't being altruistic.

Branko Collin said...

What about gays?


What about them? Biology is full of cases where individuals forego their own reproduction in order to assist in the reproductive efforts of close relatives (a variety of birds, for example, will hang around and help their parents raise subsequent generations rather than go off and raise their own broods). This generally happens when more of the helper's genes will be passed on via the indirect route than would be the case if they just struck out and bred on their own. I'm no anthropologist, but my understanding is that gays played a disproportionate role as shamans and healers in early tribal communities— a kind of social glue that helped small groups stay together and would therefore contribute to the success of relatives' young. (To be crass and flippant, they make great babysitters.) I see this as an analog of the "helper bird" scenario.

Having said this, I've gleaned these insights via a series of late-night drink-outs with other biologists who know more than me; I know a couple of folks who've done helper-bird research but I have not seen the original work on gay anthropology. So I could just be blowing smoke out my ass. It's happened before.

"Now, anybody know of any cases of Human altruism that haven't been exposed as kin selection or sleazy get-laid strategies?"

Er, you just posted a whole list under the heading "When Not Horny".


Yeah, and men have nipples. But we don't worry too much about explaining them, because we can see the need for nipples in mammals generally, and the fact that collateral nipplage occurs in a sex where it isn't necessary is just a side-effect of the developmental process.

Folks, natural selection is not engineering. It does not necessarily optimize. It's a haphazard collection of random mutations passed through a filter of what works, what doesn't, and — at its most precise — what works better than the competition. If you happen to have the best adaptation on the block, you win, and it doesn't matter whether that adaptation is optimal. (Look at the eye some time: I mean, a blind spot in the middle of the visual field? Cabling laid on top of the photoreceptors?). If a trait promotes fitness, it will be selected for — and if it sometimes manifests in contexts where it's irrelevant — or even detrimental — that doesn't matter so long as a) the cost is less than the gain and b) nobody else comes up with a more profitable strategy.

Also, why the dichotomy? You make it sound like horny is bad.


God no. Although horny can be pretty damn distracting, when you've got a deadline to meet.

August 16, 2007 at 10:14 AM  
Blogger AR said...

The lack of optimization could explain the existence of pure altruism. Presumably, if it becomes selective to be a little altruistic, evolution might cause it to be implemented in the same way it implements a lot of things in sentient organisms such as ourselves: make the organism sincerely desire to bring about improvements in the well-being of others, in the same way that most people sincerely desire to have sex.

Or, at least to sincerely desire it a little. Don't want to go overboard, right? Problem is, being a haphazard process, going overboard happens all the time. So if one can accept that it may be selective to be moderately altruistic some of the time, the existence of outliers is inevitable. You'll end up with sociopaths on one end, and people whose concern for others is self-destructive to the point of pathology. Antisocipaths.

Considering the OTHER crazy malfunctions, errors, permeations, and plain personality differences that exist among humans, I don't think anyone can reasonably argue that such people all along this spectrum don't exist. It then becomes a problem of prevalence.

Personally, I'd say that too much altruism is itself a bad thing, even from the perspective of my moralizing, ethical self. It is no good for someone to sacrifice a kidney to save someone else the trouble of making their blog occupy more than 1/5 the width of the screen (seriously, can't you make this thing adjust to the users monitor resolution?), so I say that the ideal balance is to value the well-being of others exactly as much as one values one's own. So, if it's between you and one other person for the same thing, you might just as well say, "Better you than me," but if it's between you fixing your annoying narrow blog, and someone else getting crippling index-finger injuries from over-use of the scroll-wheel, there should be no hesitation.

August 16, 2007 at 2:30 PM  
Anonymous Rakiah said...

Seems like we are talking about two things here: Psychological Altruism vs. Biological Altruism. As Peter states, he takes a definitively biological definition of altruism: "an act which benefits the recipient at a cost in inclusive fitness to the altruist." And definitely, psychological altruism is more unlikely than the possibility of selection for biological altruistic tendencies. It is quite cliche to hear people argue that even when someone chooses to jump in front of a train to save a child, they did it out of a psychologically selfish motivation because it made them feel good, despite the squishy and painful consequences, to save the child, and chose this over the mental pain of knowing one could have done something to save the child (they couldn't live with themselves). But there is a problem here too, in defining away the meaning of altruism from existence. In order to do something, I have to act to do it. At some level of consciousness, I have to make a decision to act, to make my muscles twitch. Perhaps I could be roped to a pulley system and made to do something without my volition (Or, now that I come to think of it, Sarasti), but that would also not be considered altruistic. So, perhaps volition = psychologically selfish, but then lets just throw out the word altruism from the dictionary, because it has been defined away...meaningless.

Stabbing someone to death for $100 is selfishness, jumping in front of a train and dying in order to save a child is selfishness. When two opposite acts still encompass the same definition, that is problematic...

But again, this is only for psychological altruism, it would still fit comfortably as biological altruism...so we need to be careful to stay with one definition at a time.

And one more aspect to this, even when discerning psychologically selfish/altruistic acts, we should be careful to discern the level of motivation in practice.

From what I understand of evolution selective processes, they work usually on the simplest motivation levels possible to evoke a action/response. As in procreation, while the gene "motivation" (the replicator) may be to create as many copies of itself, the organism (the vehicle) motivation is to merely to "get some of that."

Also, when acting in a (seemingly or actually) altruistic manner, perhaps the replicator is selecting for the altruistic behavior because it increases to some degree the mateability prospects of the vehicle, but the vehicle, the organism is just acting in a certain way because it seems right, seems like the good thing to do...so it all depends on which level we are looking to discern whether an act is potentially altruistic or selfish.

Interesting also that no one has brought up Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson's book Unto Others, which gives an, in my opinion, decent argument for the possibility of multilevel selection / group selection as a potential process for giving selective advantage to the evolution of biological altruism.

Sorry for the verbosity...I will stop at this point as an altruistic act.

August 16, 2007 at 6:44 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth said...

I'm not a geneticist / sociobiologist nor do I play one on TV but based on a very out-dated and foggy memory of honors level genetics, isn't it possible that some degree of altruism is good for the species as a whole, rather than just being a benefit to individual reproductive fitness?

Economists are great at using their dismal and very unscientific view of human nature to construct mind games, but the real world is much murkier. Altruism might be both an expression of individual selfishness (I do good works so that I can attract a mate by showing how magnanimous I am, etc. or merely to feel good about myself) and it might also ensure that the species as a whole continues (when we all act altruistically, even if only to attract that mate, we end up taking care of each other better than we might otherwise if we did not act altruistically).

It would seem to me that social beings must find the balance between selfishness and sociality. We have to find a way to live together, both looking after number one and looking after the group. Altruism seems to fit the bill of accomplishing both.

Very often I find that sociobiology is great on the biology part and very weak on the social part of the analysis. In other words, it takes a given social phenomenon and looks for a biological explanation, rather than doing a serious analysis of how the two interact.

August 17, 2007 at 12:13 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth said...

And I just wanted to add that I find it hilarious to point to genes and natural selection / reproductive fitness to explain complex social/psychological behaviors like altruism. The mere fact we sit around dissecting our behavior, our motivation, our desires, our hopes, dreams, intentions, goals, and try to comprehend, and then shape our own biology seems to speak of our species having overcome the biological to a great degree.

I guess, in that respect, I reject your premise in Blindsight, as much as I really enjoyed reading it.

August 17, 2007 at 12:25 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Just a point of clarification: a few of you have grumbled about the vested interests economists have regarding the subject at hand, suggesting that we can't really take them seriously on this score. Keep in mind that the research cited did not appear in The Economist, nor was it performed by economists. It appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; The Economist merely picked up on the story after the fact.

August 17, 2007 at 12:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rakiah said...
Sorry for the verbosity...


By all means, boy... thx for clearing up my growing confusion reading down this thread!
Peter, maybe next time you want to posit something like "love doesn't exist", please give your definition first. ;)

August 17, 2007 at 7:47 PM  
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October 26, 2007 at 1:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any so called alturist must be pretty naive to think that their actions will benefit them or anyone else in the long term. No one likes selfish people either and so the answer is strait forward, do what you have to to succeed and then don't go begging afterwards. For goodness sake, keep your pride and your job. And don't blame anyone else for your stupid mistakes and certainly don't make them pay for it with one's stupid selfishness.

November 28, 2007 at 8:24 PM  
Blogger ninni said...

http://communistrobot.com/viewblog.php?id=987

March 17, 2009 at 6:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

at the end its no psycology but economy

March 17, 2009 at 6:20 AM  

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