Do you think altruistic acts are rooted in our genes and biology or is it something that is learned from our societies and cultures? And if we are altruistic by nature, then how do we explain the non-altruistic things we do? Or is that where the society and culture part comes in?

I'm just thinking out loud here, so what do you think?

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I would say definitely both, at varying degrees depending on what behavior you're talking about!
If you haven't read Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, I would definitely recommend it. I'm actually halfway through it right now, and the genetic basis for altruism is one of the central themes. Good stuff!
Agree. And again citing "The Selfish Gene", I think there is ground to believe some altruistic behavior has roots in our genes while there are other forms of it which are shaped by culture. Dawkins refers briefly to memes at the end of "The Selfish Gene". Memes can survive in our brains and eventually when a meme does survive, it could get so powerful as to outlast generations and shape people's behaviors.
Ditto.
No, I haven't read it yet, but it's definitely one that's on my to-read list...and that list seems to grow longer and longer with each day.
I know there are many arguments for and against the ideas of individual, group and gene selection. I would suspect that the truth is probably a combination of evolutionary factors.
Its an older study, but does tend to show a biological reason for morality.
I agree with Sara. I think we are pack animals and that we have a base for our morality and altruism as a tool for social cohesion, but that we also get a lot of intentions for our environments.
I think it's both a learned behavior and genetic survival strategy.

The principle of enlightened self-interest is a pretty fascinating area of study. I love talking about the idea of the prisoner's dilemma.
Prisoner's dilemma (iterated version) is a good basis, indeed all game theory. It can be used as an objective way to model what would o/w be classified as moral and amoral behaviours, with statistical analysis to determine the best outcomes for all. I believe one near-optimal strategy for iterated prisoner's dilemma is "Tit-for-Tat with (occasional) forgiveness".
I think it's both, neither, and that the question itself is ... err... what's the word... meaningless? nonsensical?

I think questions about nature or nurture are a bit naive because you can't really separate nature vs. nurture very well, and because "nature" itself (in regards to genes) is a vague concept. You can't separate the two very well because many genes act differently in different (external, "nurture") environments. For example (and maybe it's a crappy example), I guess you could argue that the reason why some people were stupid in the 1920s was because of nature- they were black. Being black is about as "nature" as you could get, and that WAS the reason why they were stupid. In that social environment, those genes did cause their owners to be stupid. You could also argue that is nurture, but I hope you see my point. That IS the point really, you could argue it both ways. Another reason why you can't separate nature vs. nurture very well is because certain genes have variable expressability/incomplete penetrance, or their effects depend on other genes. Some genes WILL definitely give you a phenotype, but I think most simply give you a likelihood of having x, y, or z phenotypes.

Ugh... someone just came and was talking to me, and now I'm annoyed and my train of thought was completely derailed, so I'll just shut up and recommend the book "Nature via nurture" by Matt Ridley.

Without defining exactly what you mean by "nature", "nurture", and other things, it's pretty much impossible and meaningless to give an answer.
Oh, I absolutely agree. All I'm saying is that to give a more meaningful answer, we need to ask meaningful questions by clearly defining exactly what we mean. And even when we do, it will probably end up being very complicated, so much so that the original question may be... obsolete? The nature or nurture question simply goes away and is replaced by a more meaningful aggregate of facts (Incidentally, I suspect that's exactly what will happen/is happening with questions regarding consciousness. What it is, where it's located, etc).
PS. To not post twice, thanks for the NYT article, it looks interesting.
"then how do we explain the non-altruistic things we do?"

That we do non-altruistic or anti-altruistic things in no way negates the fact that we do altruistic things. They are separate behaviors. The behavior of butt itching in no way negates the behavior of eye blinking. The fact that one behavior exists does not invalidate the existence of a behavior perceived as opposite.
I like this response.

I sense that many people are looking for a logical argument that we should never do anything non-altrusitic and only do altruistic acts. If we accept that there is no god and we are evolved from our animal bretheren, why must we be so special as to restrain ourselves to only act altruistically? Does my selfish gene survive better by only being altruistic?

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