Thursday, February 07, 2008

Some Thoughts on Altruism

Having evolved as a social mammal, we evolved to care for those in our tribe. This makes sense as an evolutionary adaptation. If I do something good for those in my tribe, they will reciprocate when I'm in times of trouble. We thus have an instinct to care for others. But which others? Certainly we didn't evolve to take care of anyone not in our tribe. And typically the tribe was relatives, whether close or distant. The sociobiologists have suggested that this sort of soft altruism evolved to ensure your genes continued, not just through you directly, but through close relatives. There is perhaps something to this, though that would mean you would have to know for certain who your relatives are. This would seem to be a recent adaptation, the ability to definitively recognize kin. Chimpanzees can do it, but they are in fact the exception that proves the rule, since we know that chimpanzee troops split up, and when they do, and meet back up, even close relatives will make an effort to slaughter each other. Perhaps soft altruism initially evolved for the reasons sociobiologists say, but things have changed sometime during the evolution of the apes. The altruism became stronger, and it didn't necessarily involve kin -- just members of the group. Humans do the same thing. We will work to protect the group, no matter what the group is, or how it came together. It may come together over nothing we would consider to be substantial, but the group will protect itself as a group -- thus "mob mentality." At a certain density and group size, we will work as one, like a flock of birds or a school of fish, doing whatever the one who is the most determined, or who appears to be most determined, wants to do. That this goes all the way down to schools of fish, who certainly have no idea if they are related, and may not be, suggests that there is something else going on. Those who are studying swarm theory may someday have the answer to this.

The fact that we swarm and can behave as one makes some people dream of a society where swarm theory is the rule, where everyone dissolves themselves into the We. When you are dissolved in a We, you think that We can do anything. Much socialist thinking is grounded in this desire to dissolve into the We. We will take care of everyone in the We. The problem with this kind of ubertribalism is that it can tap into the worst parts of human beings as well. And typically does. Humans evolved to hate anyone not in the group -- this is the deep source of racism. When we dissolve ourselves into a We, we exclude those on in the We, and will do so with deadly force if we think the We is in danger. All it takes is someone with enough determination and focus. Then the group will follow that one with the focus.

These thoughts have gone a little off track of what I initially was talking about. But perhaps not. I asked the question earlier about why we should help people because that impulse to do so is the same one people tap into to argue for socialism -- whether democratic, fascist or communist. Something we are programmed to do naturally is being tapped into to try to get us to do things and organize ourselves in ways that are not natural, particularly over the long term. So, other than the reasons given above, that we are genetically programed to want to help those in our tribe (and our tribe in the modern world can be quite large and, for some, may include the entire world), why should we want to help people? And what do we even mean by "help"?
Post a Comment