Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Doubting Altruism

Here's a great article from Skeptic magazine. It's about some new experiments which cast doubt on whether chimps actually exhibit altruistic behavior. It suggests to me that maybe altruism is caused more by cultural factors rather than evolutionary ones.


Baconeater said...

I really believe empathy and guilt are innate in humans, and all social animals.
As for the monkey and ape studies, I think when it is a matter of real survival, protection of the tribe becomes just as important as protection of the individual.
Until you study them where the tribe is being threatened, you can't make inferences with regard to "altruism."

I don't believe in altruism by the way. We do things that appear to be altruistic to satisfy the pleasure zones in our brain. So altruistic acts are really selfish acts when really analyzed.

SirMoogie said...


There are many acts that satisfy the pleasure centers of our brain that are easier, and safer, to attain than certain altruistic acts. For example, watching a funny movie, as opposed to giving blood. Why do you think some people would choose to give blood over watching a funny movie, if both actions are pleasurable?

Baconeater said...

Sir Moogie, I would choose the funny movie. I'm not saying it is simple.
Take your giving blood example, I think I would be inclined if there was a huge shortage and it was convenient for me.
I think a better example would be holding a door for an old lady who is walking slow and 30 seconds away from making it through the door.
Some of it might be culture, but I think we get a bit of a rush, no matter if the old lady says thanks or not.

SirMoogie said...

Giving blood isn't convenient for anyone, unless it is used in an emergency transfer between parent and child (for example). A normal donation involves a time consuming screening process (shortened by computers and quicker tests), followed by the insertion of a needle into a vein (last time I had this done it caused a spurt that ruined a good shirt), about 5-10 minutes (depending on blood flow) of waiting while they collect the donation, followed by a period of rest to recuperate. I'm usually fairly well off after a donation, some drowsiness sometimes, but I'm also young and healthy.

Regardless, people do go through this process despite having access to easier rewards. I do watch funny movies, play video games, read about the mind and brain*, read my science blogs**, and occasionally socialize. I think you're in error when you claim performing altruistic acts are simply selfish acts, which I presume you mean, only performed to satisfy a need for pleasure. I don't doubt that there might be some reward associated with giving blood, such as the good feelings associated with helping another person that you never meet or hear from, but altruism is probably multifaceted, as sometimes people choose harder, less safe, means of getting a reward. My video games are always available, and are pleasurable. Yet, I give blood whenever I can. why?

* - Yes, I find this fun. =D
** - Great job Ryan!

I suspect another possible contributor to the decision to perform altruism is the cognitive process of reasoning. For example:

I believe it is morally wrong to let someone die when they can be saved (beneficence). People who suffer mass blood loss will die. My blood can be safely transferred to most people*. Blood transfusions given to people who have lost a lot of blood, will help save their lives. Giving a blood donation will allow my blood to be used for up to three transfusions. Thus, my blood can be used to help save three lives. Thus, to prevent a moral wrong, I donate blood.

* - I'm O-negative

AIGBusted said...

Hey Sir Moogie,

Have you got my email address? If so, I'd like to ask a favor. I just got done writing a chapter in my book and I am looking for people to draft read it. I want the chapter to be easily understood and interesting.

Anyway, if you'll drop me a line, I'll send it to you as an attachment. You can take as long as you like to read it, my only request is that you send me a short critique of it when you are finished.

This goes for you as well, BEAJ. If you'd like to read the draft just drop me a line here:

Ryansarcade AT


Hambydammit said...

I don't know that this article is so much about "doubting altruism" as it is "doubting one kind of cognitive altruism in some primates." I am inventing that term for this comment, so don't take it too seriously. What I mean to say is that altruism, defined as "sacrificing resources, to one's own detriment, for the benefit of another," is genetic, it is instinctive, and it's all over the animal kingdom. What these experiments appear to be casting doubt upon is the ability for various primate individuals to reason their way into a particular act that will benefit another while not benefiting itself. While this is certainly interesting research, I don't see how it has any particular bearing on the evolutionary origins of altruism.

Game theoretic approaches to altruistic behavior based on R (degree of relatedness) work out really well in animals that most certainly do not have the capacity to reason it through. The big question, I suppose, is where and how the desire to be altruistic in more abstract ways developed.

As I said, this is very interesting, but in a way, I think this article encourages a kind of backward thinking. For comparison, consider that someone recently asked me why humans want to live and want to find purpose and meaning, strictly from an evolutionary point of view. I responded that we would be quite surprised if blind evolution, which has promoted only those creatures which have enough survival instinct to survive, would have suddenly abandoned survival instinct upon completing the evolutionary design of sentience. In other words, when sentience emerged in pre-humans, what possible reason would we have for assuming sentience would not include strong survival drives?

In the same way, if social animals perform altruistic acts without sentient thought, why would we be surprised that sentience included the desire to be altruistic?

Baconeater said...

AIG, I have to decline. I'm really busy lately, and I'm an embarrassingly slow reader to boot.