Altruism, Evolution, and Care


The current New Yorker (3/5/12) is running an excellent article, Kin and Kind, by Jonah Lehrer (not available without a subscription) about altruism and its connection (or not) to evolution. Most of it is concerned with animal, especially insect, behavior, but human behavior is addressed toward the end. The main thrust of the story is centered on a long-standing controversy within biology and the major players in that stand-off. Along the way, we learn something about altruism and its roots (or not) in the genes. Altruism, caring about the safety and well-being of others while your own safety and well-being may be imperiled, stands against the idea of selfishness as the central feature of successful species. Reproductive success is presumed to be maximized by doing better than other species in the incessant competition for the means of survival. Species, such as ants, bees, and social wasps, that exhibit altruism appear to be an exception.

The earliest argument made to explain this apparent anomaly was that the altruistic species, by protecting or caring for their relatives (inclusive fitness theory), preserved the collective gene pool, giving them a competitive edge. Much of the article was devoted to alternative viewpoints about the validity of this notion. I won’t go into further detail, except to say that E. O. Wilson has been in the center of this controversy, first supporting the idea of inclusive fitness and later becoming a vocal critic of it. I am more interested the implications of all this for human beings. Wilson’s current arguments give me a clue. He says:

Altruism has returned to a hypothesis first proposed by Darwin in “The Descent of Man”-that human generosity might have evolved as an emergent property not of the individual but of the group. “There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who … were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes,” Darwin wrote.While acts of altruism can be costly for the individual, Darwin argued that they helped sustain the colony, which made individuals within the colony more likely to survive.

I interpret this as saying that altruism is socially constructed, and is not some inherent genetically based characteristic. It comes from learning in a group (tribal) context that cooperative acts work better than selfish acts in certain situations. Thoroughly Heideggerian in meaning. Directly out of Maturana’s theory of structural coupling and his simple statement that “doing is learning.”

Culture is a name we give to describe the body of routine activities of a collection of individuals. Another way to describe a culture is a persistent set of behaviors which the members learn over time as they are socialized into the culture. Learning is essential to the emergence and persistence of a culture. Learning is the observable evidence of some underlying template or rules, which produce the observed behavior. This is an almost perfect analogy to the notion of a genotype and phenotype. DNA creates the genotype which produces a characteristic behavior, the phenotype. The beliefs and other embedded, taken-for-granted rules of a culture are the equivalent of the genotype and the behavioral patterns, the phenotype. Richard Dawkins coined the word, meme, to relate to a social object that transmits the cultural patterns from person to person, a sort of cultural gene.

Altruism is just one of several categories of caring behavior that constitute the human being, as opposed to other living species. I doubt if E. O. Wilson thinks much about Heidegger, but he should. I might be misjudging him because he has written a book, Consilience, in which he argues that human progress will continue along its progressive path (I wonder often what this progress is all about) if all the many disciplines, each with its own little chunk of knowledge about the world, should find a way to collapse into a single unified body of knowledge.

Heidegger says we are human because we care about the world into which we are thrown. The biological argument that Wilson is making about altruism is a singular case of caring. With the ability to reflect and explain the world in language, humans have constructed much richer and complex cultures than other species, and so have more domains to care about. Or better, have gone through periods when new domains of care appeared as the societies became more complex. Maternal care has always been around. Indigenous people often make care for the Earth explicit in their cultures. The means for addressing cares have certainly changed with every sociological transition. Subsistence now comes via the supermarket rather than through the bow and arrow, but the basic feature of care continues to be the underlying constitutive feature of being human.

Today, as I write following Erich Fromm and others, our species has lost this quality of caring in exchange for a material existence, based on having. We have come to believe that [technological] objects will take care of the “needs” of our own bodies and everything else in the world, relieving us of the responsibility to explicitly reflect on those needs and act accordingly. This is an old story in my writing. What’s new is the discovery that the grounds for claiming we are caring creatures all the way down have been expanded by Wilson and other scientists who have observed caring behavior in other species. They attribute it to a kind of social learning, a slightly different way of telling the story I have learned from Heidegger and Maturana. Sustainability-as-flourishing depends critically on recovering this consciousness of care as what makes us unique in the world. Neglecting important domains of care has caused the collapse of cultures, as Jared Diamond and Marvin Harris write, but hubris seems to be blinding us to the same possibility for our vibrant, seemingly all-powerful modern culture.

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David M Carter said:

My current thinking is that the pendulum swings closer to nurture than nature. Regardless, the fact remains that human well-being is maximized through the expression of social interactions, particularly those proferred by way of altruism and gratitude. Further, the more social we are, gnerally the happier we are. Those within long-term, committed relationships report having higher levels of well-being than those without. If the search for well-being (whether it be socially constructed, inherent, or both) were taken seriously, we could increase the level of care in the world. This care would likely manifest in greater sustainability.

Unfortunately, bad is stronger than good. So, fear captures our attention and makes us vulnerable to being controlled by others. We find ourselves taken away from the caring social interactions that bring us the greatest joy and build our capacity to create sustainable cultures.