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Counter Evolutionary Psychology Arguments Concerning Altruism Part 1

Darwinian explanations for the phenomena of life and our own existence have a way seeping into every facet of our body of knowledge about the world around us, a dissolution that Daniel Dennett liked to describe as a universal acid (Dennett 1995). A universal acid would dissolve any substance and therefore nothing would be able to contain it. In this fashion, Darwinian explanations that describe our locomotion and origins have also begun to account for our nature and our behavior. Some have attempted to stop the seepage of this acid into explanations for our behavior by claiming that the mechanisms by which evolution created our physical form and function and even some of our behavior—in particular—have no ability to generate our capacity for altruistism; our capacity to give to one another without regard for self-interest. However, altruism is only protected from the acid of the Darwinian explanation if the mechanisms of evolution are modeled incorrectly or if the interests of genes are mistaken as synonymous with the interests of an organism. This attempt to use altruism to stave off the acid of a Darwinian explanation for altruism in human behavior will not succeed. In the first place, it is often argued that an evolutionary generation of behavior would be inadequate to create altruistic behavior. Both dualists and advocates of the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) level this criticism against evolutionary psychologists; the dualists believing that some immaterial explanation for our behavior may exist, and the adherents of SSSM believing that culture and behavior lay beyond the control of genes. They argue that because traits evolve through natural selection (the gradual breeding out of members of a species who do not possess some useful adaptation to an environment) there can be no opportunity for a trait for altruism to arise—it would simply lead to the elimination of an organism possessing the trait. Any altruistic organism attempting to act without regard to its own self-interest would quickly be taken advantage of by its fellow organisms, doomed to suffer from an inability to look after itself and others while others merely looked out for themselves.

We should first consider that there exists altruism on numerous levels, in which in some cases it appears more mechanical than others. One need only point to the behavior of animals in symbiotic relationships to see that evolution can create reciprocal arrangements between organisms—even organisms of different species. Of course, opponents of the Darwinian explanation immediately object that this is not the kind of altruism that they are after and this objection will be key later on, but it is critical to note that there is no objection to evolution’s capacity to generate reciprocal arrangements. For now, we can accept their objection that merely biological exchange is not altruism and move on to a higher degree of altruism—one less objectionable to opponents of evolutionary psychology.

A key question concerning altruism in higher-order organisms is why should evolution only be allowed to develop altruism as a pure and defenseless adaptation in isolation? This is a critical premise in the argument that evolution would weed out organisms that developed an altruistic trait. In effect, the argument made is that altruistic organisms would have no defense against their own behavior. But altruism as a trait should be regarded as a phenomenon that can happen in concert with other adaptations. Consider that the adaptation of altruism, acting for the benefit of another without regard to self-interest, and the adaptation of memory, the ability to recall past experience, can interact to form a meta-adaptation, as it were. An organism capable of acting for the benefit of another while simultaneously being able to recall if that action resulted in a return of the favor in the past would have a defense against any organism acting purely in its own self-interest. Both of these adaptations working together allow for the development of strategies that dictate when and if to act altruistically.

In fact, computer simulations have shown that an ideal strategy exists referred to as Tit-for-tat. Numerous computer programs have been pitted against one another, each acting with some strategy for interaction with other programs during a trade. In every instance of a trade, both programs have something to exchange. When they make the exchange they can either act honestly and offer their “good” in exchange or they can cheat and only take without giving in return. If both programs act honestly they benefit from the resulting exchange. According to those who say that altruism would be wiped out in a competition, the cheating programs should handily win the competition. But they don’t. A program that is honest—or altruistic—during its first exchange but then conducts itself the same as its fellow program every turn onwards succeeds in gaining the benefit from cooperation while defending itself against those programs that only cheat. It acts altruistically and it remembers the outcome. No other higher function is necessary for this program to succeed against all other strategies.

Moreover, emotions, generated through chemical mechanisms created by genes, can drive organisms to engage just these kinds of strategies. When we are cheated we feel disappointed or angry and those negative emotions re-enforce a resolve not be duped again. Acting for the benefit of others grants us good positive emotional re-enforcement—feelings of satisfaction and happiness. These emotions are not necessary for the strategy to exist. Clearly the tit-for-tat program required no emotion to benefit from an altruistic-memory strategy, but then it was programmed to be altruistic in only one situation (exchange) with only two behavioral options (give or cheat). Organisms that daily encounter more complex situations, some entirely new, require a greater spectrum of behavioral options and emotional drives to continue acting altruistically with even limited success. Sharing food with each other might yield benefits for all but sharing food with bears is not nearly as good an idea. Other behavioral adaptations such as fear (especially of animals much larger than ourselves) might override our inclination to be altruistic. And evolution will not necessarily create such a simplistic behavior as a purely altruistic organism; one that is totally uninterested in ever acting on its own behalf.

to be continued…

References: Barash, D. (1979) Sociobiology: The Whisperings Within, Fontana/Collins Dennett, D. C. (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Penguin Books

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