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Thought provoking...

"Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary."

—From the article "Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection II: The Original Problem" by David Sloan Wilson, Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences and Anthropology at Binghamton University

(The entire series of "Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection" articles, fifteen in number, are linked to from Professor Wilson's biography page on HuffingtonPost.com)


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 15th, 2011 03:19 pm (UTC)
Lacking context for that quotation, I cannot be sure, but I suspect it may not mean what you think it means.

Short summary: The word "altruism" has more than one definition, and the one biologists commonly use is probably not the one you're thinking of.

I first encountered the use of "altruism" as a technical term in biology decades ago, in Edward Wilson's Sociobiology: A New Synthesis. It perplexed me for quite a while. Eventually, by reading carefully, I figured out that Wilson was characteristically talking about "reciprocal altruism," and that what "reciprocal altruism" means is

* A does x, which makes B better off
* B does y, which makes A better off
* A does not do things to make others than B better off
* B does not do things to make others than A better off

Now, in human relationships, the thing that's most comparable to this is not gifts, or charity, which are what most people think of when they say "altruism," but trade: I have a lot of potatoes, you have a lot of fish, I give you some potatoes for some of your fish. It's not the domain of Adam Smith's The Theory of the Moral Sentiments but of his The Wealth of Nations. But, in human terms, we normally think of trade as an expression not of altruism, but of (perhaps "enlightened") self-interest. So what Wilson was affirming was a biological precursor for trade; he was not asserting any biological precursor for charity.

As I say, I don't know the context of your quotation, so I don't know that the authors are using "altruism" the same way. They may not even be clear on it; in my experience (and I have edited scores of papers for Theoretical Population Biology), biologists do not think carefully about the exact history of the technical terms, but just use them the way other biologists use them.

But if they are using it in the biological sense I'm familiar with, what they are saying is that a group that organizes its internal social relationships by trade and mutual gain will do better than a group that organizes its internal relationships by coercion and exploitation. Which is pretty much exactly what Adam Smith meant when he said that in a system of economic liberty, businessmen pursuing their own profit were led "as if by an invisible hand" to do things that made their society better off.
Oct. 17th, 2011 01:22 pm (UTC)
An interesting analysis. However, I don't think you can discount the definition of "altruism" in the human relationship sense, because whether or not a person expects to receive quid pro quo for the good he/she does for others, that "return on investment" or "payment for services rendered" usually happens anyway . . . in the form of higher social regard, increased positive reputation, increased positive self-assessment, etc. So, in some way, all altruism is "reciprocal", even if the B positively affected by A's action doesn't directly act to positively affect A in return. However, B will often 1) say to his friends what a nice person A is, 2) generally respond more positively to A in social encounters, and possibly even 3) bring C, D, E, etc. to A when A needs something that one of them can provide. It's more diffuse than a direct "I scratch your back, you scratch mine," but it still works to benefit the originator.

"...what they are saying is that a group that organizes its internal social relationships by trade and mutual gain will do better than a group that organizes its internal relationships by coercion and exploitation."

Yes, and as a group, that is correct. You can see that in world economies. The United States currently uses an internal organizational principle where the wealthy and selfish few exploit and coerce the workforce for their own gain . . . and our economy is suffering for it, and so are other economies that have followed our lead. The economies that have suffered less are the ones that don't allow that kind of exploitation and give the workforce a solid safety net so that fear of homelessness, starvation, disease, and death doesn't stop them from leaving an exploitative and coercive employer. (In fact, as it has been pointed out in the past, countries with solid social safety nets have higher levels of entrepreneurship than those that don't.)
Oct. 17th, 2011 06:33 pm (UTC)
I think it would not be productive to discuss the economic analysis, as you and I are not likely to find any common ground there, either factual or evaluative.

But I do want to note that "altruism" as a term in the discussion of human affairs is also ambiguous. The word was coined by Auguste Comte, a French philosopher and social theorist. And he defined it as meaning total disregard for one's own interests and well-being, and action motivated exclusively by concern for the good of others. I mean this completely seriously; I edited a biography of him a couple of years ago, and I was struck by the passage about his denouncing Jesus as an advocate of selfishness because Jesus said Love your neighbor as yourself and in doing so accept love of oneself as ethically legitimate; Comte said that a good person would have called for total contempt for one's own well-being, and that Jesus fell short of his own ethical standards. The only thing in ethics I've seen that parallels that is Kant's argument that if you die to save your friend's life, that has no ethical worth, because you would prefer your friend to live rather than die; it only counts as ethical if you die to save a total stranger for whom you care nothing, out of a pure sense of duty—and anything short of that was "pathological" rather than "moral."

Most people, of course, don't use "altruism" in that technical sense. They use it to mean generosity, kindness, benevolence, charity, compassion, and all the things that Adam Smith classed under "sympathy" in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. And those things, on one hand, strike me as a lot healthier, and on the other, in the evolutionary sense, have rewards such as those you discuss.
Oct. 17th, 2011 06:53 pm (UTC)
Interesting. Out of curiosity, which definition do you think Rand was thinking of when she condemned altruism as evil?
Oct. 17th, 2011 08:35 pm (UTC)
Actually, I don't need to guess, because I know: Rand was explicitly thinking of Comte's definition. I first heard of Comte in reading her writings on ethics, and I thought for a long time that Rand might have been exaggerating Comte's position . . . and then I read that Comte bio and found that, no, Comte actually said that stuff.

You have to remember that Rand was not a native English speaker; she learned English words from formal definitions, and she often went for the most technical and intellectual definition. She did acknowledge the common usage of "altruism," but dismissed it as invalid because it wasn't the original technical definition.

At the same time, Rand was quite explicit about some forms of good will toward other human beings being praiseworthy. The details of her views on this would take a long essay to set out, but at the most basic, Rand almost invariably uses "benevolence" as a positive word and "malevolence" as a negative one. Late in her life, for example, in a television interview, she said that though she was an atheist, she liked the expression "God bless you" as a way of conveying good will toward another person.

And rather than try to explain the matter, let me give you a bit from the first entry in The Ayn Rand Lexicon on "altruism" (because it's available online and my copies of her books are scattered all over the place):

</i>What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible.</i>

I think it's pretty clear that what she's thinking of there is Comte's theory, and not any of the things people use "altruism" to mean in ordinary speech. And, well, Comte's theory is creepy. Adam Smith's is a lot healthier psychologically, as I said.
Oct. 18th, 2011 12:28 pm (UTC)
Goodness me. Well, my friend, you have done it again: you have given me cause to change my mind about something.

Granted, I still don't like Rand. I think she was, at best, deeply internally conflicted. However, I dislike her less than I did before. And that, my friend, is no mean feat.

Thank you.
Oct. 18th, 2011 01:18 pm (UTC)
I'm glad to have been of help.
Oct. 17th, 2011 06:55 pm (UTC)
And no, I don't mean that as a barb, I'm genuinely curious. (Having not known of Comte's definition, I had previous assumed that she meant the common definition, but it occurs to me that she might have been addressing the more extreme form.)
Oct. 17th, 2011 03:54 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing this. I'm passing it on with attribution, both the simple summary and the full analysis.

Also, you used an em—dash. That's awesome in its own right.
Oct. 17th, 2011 04:31 pm (UTC)
Em dashes (—) and en dashes (–) are my friends, and I use them appropriately. Although a double hyphen (--) can substitute for the former, and a regular hyphen (-) for the latter, in some contexts, nothing beats using the real thing, in my opinion.

And thank you for sharing. :)
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