Altruism, a problem for Darwin, is still not settled.

The currently accepted explanation for altruism is something known as kin selection theory. It says that an organism trying to pass its genes down to future generations can do so indirectly, by helping a relative to survive and procreate. Your brother, for example, shares roughly half your genes. And so, by the dispassionate logic of evolution, helping him produce offspring is half as good for you as producing your own. The full story follows.

For the last thirty or more years, kin selection theory has been the generally accepted explanation. I was never comfortable with it, seeing evolution as a struggle between individuals, not tribes. Someone else seems to be at odds with the standard model. I'm not sure if Dr. Wilson is on the same track I am, and I may be totally off the wall, but I'll throw my working model out and let the pros tell me what's wrong with my simplistic model.

I was watching the meerkats (very sociable beings) at the local Busch Gardens zoo recently. The usual question that pops up is, why does the lookout risk him/herself, standing on the top of the tallest pile of dirt, watching and sounding an alert if needed? They do seem to take turns at it but, still, why take the risk?

It occurs to me that if he or I weren't playing our parts in our particular cultures, and I see his and mine both as largely instinctual, we'd have a hard time getting dates. Seriously. Does being a sociopath give an individual an evolutionary advantage? I don't think so. Those of us who can better adapt to the needs of our group do better, all other things being equal. What am I missing?

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Altruism probably developed for several reasons. Social animals use co opetation as thier particular survival strategy. The more complex an animals social stucture, the more complex the behavior that will evolve. (or maybe the other way around) 

Wilson's group selection: Under certain circumstances, groups of cooperators can out-compete groups of non-cooperators, thereby ensuring that their genes — including the ones that predispose them to cooperation — are handed down to future generations.


Complexity isn't the issue. It's simply a matter of having the genetic predisposition to be able to function as part of a group. Of course, functioning as part of the group may be easier if you also share the same instinctual responses typical of your group. With humans, we instinctively feel ick about cannibalism, incest, spoiled meat, etc. We are also tribal and territorial. I think altruism, like tribalism, is instinctive and evolved in response to the group needs, even though the selection for these traits was at the level of individuals. In human society, the maladapted, the sociopath, is a monster to be shunned or killed. The maladapted don't prosper in the long run, even though they may gain temporary advantage by stealing or avoiding responsibilities. 

Seems simple to me.

I would be careful saying that people feel instinctively about anything. Simply because something is widely considered taboo does not mean it is instinctual. Most societies avoid cannibalism but some societies embrace it. Most societies shun incest, but many societies have embraced it. Most societies avoid spoiled meat but then some embrace that too.
I disagree. There are themes that largely transcend culture. We build our cultures from these genetic biases.
You can disagree all you like, your assertion is still false. Royal families in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East have all practiced incest as far back as ancient times. Cannibalistic cultures have existed on nearly every continent. There are societies which embrace the idea of eating certain spoiled foods as delicacies.

Rare exceptions to the rules. It sounds like you might have another idea to explain altruism, or, at least, some of the strong and rather universal biases we feel.

I disagree here too. Altruism extends far beyond our family or tribe in many instances. And it's not limited to to our own sacred species. I saw a video of an elephant gently righting a turtle that was struggling on its back. What may have evolved for the good of a group may extend beyond its primary function.
I was just thinking, as the needs of the group change, for example, new habitat, enemies or other challenges, there would be selective pressure on individuals to adapt to the new needs. If, for example, the group needed to be more aggressive, the slightly more aggressive individual would be favored. Culture and circumstance may alter the needs of the group and therefore alter the pressures on individuals to be able to conform/function within the new system. The group and individual face changes and adapt somewhat in tandem. Natural selection is, nevertheless, working at the level of the individual, not the group. Does this work?
The evolution of morality is a facinating subject. I am not going to be able to do it justice in the space and time available to me presently.

Tho, I do wish to add an idea it two.

One, kin selection is just part of the entire process. We are social animals and individuals of higher status ate more likely to reproduce.

Two, an individual with many powerful allies is of higher status.

The best way to gain alies that one can count on is to be an ally that others can count on.

The successful individual in this situation is the one that uses their resources most cleverly, knowing when to avoid undue risk and defer to others and alternatively knowing when to assert ones authority to ones adbantage .

I probably mangled and misrepresented this argument horibly . A very good description of this is in a book by Robert Wright called "The Moral Animal".

Another small point; I am unsure about Mercats, but most animal warning calls work in a way so as to protect the alarm sounder as well as everyone else.
Your examples are good ones. Still, they're a subset of what I see as the basic process of evolution favoring the individuals best adapted to the needs of the group.

The whole point of "The Selfish Gene" is that we should look to our genes as the agents of actual self-interest, rather than ourselves. It is genes that are the "individuals" struggling for survival. Therefore you behaving altruistically for your group or tribe could be described as the genes of group solidarity gaining the upper hand against the genes of individual self-interest that any one of them possesses. A gene that itself behaved in a self-sacrificial way would die out very quickly.


It's a very powerful idea, and I would want to study it in detail before critiquing it. Genes might evolve their own unique survival strategies that would blow our minds. I also am interested in the idea of how falsifiable a concept this is.

True enough that it's "simple" biochemistry but, in the final analysis, we can be thought of as lumps of meat that function to (whose "true purpose" is to) perpetuate aggregates of genes. That'll send weak minds fleeing to the local Catholic Church.


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