Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Rationality of Altruism

This post is motivated by reading one particular bit of Richard Dawkins' God Delusion. In it, Dawkins tries to prove the tremendous improbability of the existence of God - but I'll deal with that (heavy) matter in later posts. In this post, I want to talk about one corollary of their being no God: in the absence of God, why are people still nice?

To be clear, I'm seeking an answer that would satisfy a Darwinist, ie a proponent of 'natural selection'. A very basic recap of natural selection: a gene's main goal is to survive. It does this by enabling the holder of those genes (the organism) to outlast its competition. For example, a gene for long, muscular legs might enable tigers to run faster and catch prey that a gene for weak legs would not. The tiger with long legs would survive, procreate, and pass its genes on. Note, that the gene doesn't have a mind of its own - it simply embodies its organism with the phenotype(s) (in this case, long legs) that allow the organism to survive better than other tigers that don't have the gene and as a natural consequence the gene is passed on. After thousands of years, the gene pool consists of those that enable the host organism to survive - hence, the phrase the 'survival of the fittest'. Natural selection can also be applied at the level of a whole organism or even with respect to whole groups of animals, but that's not of concern to us here.

With this background, I'm interested in the natural selection pressures that cause humans to be 'nice' to each other. Note, that it's not enough to say something akin to 'because it makes us feel good'. The Darwinist would press on - exactly why are we suspectible to that 'feel good' feeling when being altruistic? What evolutionary pressures caused the reward for altruisim to be a warm, fuzzy feeling?

Dawkins attempts to answer this question in one of the chapters of the 'God Delusion' when dealing with whether or not we need religion to be good. He claims that our altruism is a by-product of our ancestors' need to be nice to each other in order to survive. To wit, there are four main buckets of altruistic behavior. First, we're altruistic to whomever we share genes with - this should be obvious. Genes that endow altruism to relatives are more likely to help them survive and pass on those genes than genes that do not allow for altruism to relatives. It follows that we should be altruistic to our parents, children, and siblings. Second, our ancestors were altruistic because they could develop a reputation for being so - clearly, such a reputation would help one survive. Third, we are nice to others because we may need favors from them in the future. Such 'reciprocal altruism' was apparently necessary for the survival of members of an ancient tribe. Fourth, we're nice because we want to prove our superiority to others. Such phenomena is actually documented in the animal kingdom where superior birds will take on dangerous jobs such as risking being a watchman and will dole out bits and pieces of food to less fortunate members of the nest to display superiority (to perhaps attract mates).

The claim is that such evolutionary pressures as ingrained 'niceness' into us and it is that which causes us to be nice even though such evolutionary pressures do not exist anymore. A parallel that will shed immediate light on this is the following: we derive great pleasure from sex. There is a very good reason for that - it's what allows us to pass on our genes. Clearly, organisms that enjoy sex will do it more often and outlast those that don't care for it. However, in our present situation, we enjoy sex even though we know that it may not lead to babies - we *understand* cognitively that our genes are not being passed on, but we can't turn off our predisposition to enjoying sex. Similarly, we can't turn off our predisposition for the altruism that was passed on from our ancestors.

However, the chief motivation for this post is that it all seems rather bleak. We're nice to each other because our ancestors were forced to be altruistic because of the above four evolutionary pressures? How depressing is that? But, we can't avoid the conclusion if we're forced to accept Darwin's natural selection and by all accounts, its explanatory power in describing the sheer variety and details of each and every organism makes it one of the most beautiful and elegant theories to ever come about. Indeed, before Darwin, people had NO IDEA how to explain how nature comes about except to invoke God (ie intelligent design). Now, we know better, but I digress. Is life destined to be this bleak?

We all know of some people that are nicer than others. This easily follows from natural selection - indeed it's a hallmark of that theory. Natural selection explains beautifully the diversity in organisms. As we would expect, people vary significantly on the 'niceness' axis, just like they do in other axes like intelligence, athleticism, etc. But, rationally speaking, why should be 'nice'?

If you don't care about the answer to this question, then perhaps it's wise to carry on as you should. You'll be as nice as your genes allow you to be and if you're one of the lucky ones, then you'll certainly be more than agreeable. Suffice to say, even if you don't have an abundance of 'nice genes', you'll have at least a few that are passed on from your ancestors' altruism.

For those that are thinking that there has to be more to niceness than evolutionary pressure, there may be some hope if we "override" our genes by thinking actively about it - after all, each individual controls what they do. Genes merely predispose us to certain behaviors. So, then the question becomes: are there any non evolutionary pressures that dictate altruisim? Or is altruism merely a byproduct of our evolutionary predisposition to altruism, old learned behaviors misfiring in the current world, as Dawkins extols?

Consider two cases. First, let's examine our behaviors towards persons that we genuninely "like". Clearly, the emotion of "liking" somebody was not alien to our ancestors. However, because of more timely needs (mainly the need to survive), such feelings were secondary. However, in our current world, we don't need to justify every action as a means for survival. We can genuinely "like" somebody and be altruistic towards them *even though such behavior does not increase the chance for gene propagation and survival*. This, then, is the crux of the argument. We can be nice to somebody because we like them and because not being nice to them causes them pain and as a result hurts us. There is no evolutionary pressure, no agents of natural selection acting here. There is no direct (or indirect as far as I can tell) effect on our genes' propensity to survive. Being nice because we like it doesn't dramatically change the probability of gene survival. Thus, this is the first departure from Dawkins' claim that niceness is a side effect of evolutionary mechanisms.

Second, consider our interactions with people that we necessarily do not 'like. Note, that the set of people in this bucket do not have to be strangers. They can be coworkers or other acquaintances that we only peripherally know - the key relevant attribute is that we don't have any emotional investment in them. To be sure, much of our altruism follows from our need to keep our reputation intact as Dawkins claimed. Also, we may indulge in reciprocal altruism, again as Dawkins noted. However, it seems to me that most of the altruism observed in practice occurs from societal structures and norms. In other words, we follow what society dictates because we *rationalize* that the world is better with such altruism than without. Again, the overriding driver for altruism is not necessarily an evolutionary pressure, although that exists to be sure. Rather, it is our cognition that enables us to understand that perhaps life would be easier if we were nicer than not. Who among us wants to increase conflict and complexity in our own personal world? Rather, we choose to be nice because we see it around us and there is little cost (and potentially a larger benefit) in doing so. From a strict utilitarian perspective, being nice to strangers is not a strict negative. Note that this argument is further butressed by observing that not all societies have equal amounts of altruism as would roughly be expected if evolutionary pressures were the main driving factor.