In the current issue of Scientific American (July 2012) there is a wonderful article relating to the evolution of altruism in humans. For some time this has been a conflagrantly controversial issue in evolutionary biology, with the old paradigm of kin selection being fought on many levels including basic common-sense. Simply, the old theory had it that altruism could only evolve between closely genetically related individuals, thus, human society started from large families, expanded, etc. (The old theory was stationed on the observation worker bees are 75% genetically related.) The novelty of the approach is that mathematical modelling is used to analyze how cooperation can evolve purely through the action of modelled genes in a population that aggregates together, rather than through biological or in-the-field evidentiary accrual.
It turns out there are in fact 4 distinct ways this can happen, the first being the old kin selection method. A neat thought expt. asks you to consider if behind a left door there are children at imminent risk of death (from a burning house for ex.), behind a right door, there is your only child at equally imminent risk-- Is there any number of kids behind the left door that would convince you to save them first? Any parent would say, no, even if every other child on earth were behind the left, I would first save my own child on the right. Obviously there is no rational reason for this, it is purely an instinct, an understandable one at that.
The second form of altruism in groups is the old 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours,' which is obvious in primate groups where one will share with others that have shared in the past. If one is uncertain about a troupe member, then one shares less. Someone who has demonstrated generosity in the past, of course, gets more shared. Always there are evolved ways to punish cheaters who take advantage of others.
The third form is reputational altruism, again seen widely in primates, in groups stratified in a distinct though possibly fluid pecking order, one gains in reputation by sharing with the higher-ups. Grooming behaviour in bonobos is the perfect example of this.
And the fourth is the kind of selfless self-sacrifice that we find so typical of humans, which is pretty much absent in other primates, where one is willing to die for the group. (Soldiers in a war, or the quite frequent story of someone saving a stranger from a lake and dying in the process. Though the perfect examples are the worker ants or bees who will die in multitudes to save their colony or queen.) How does this come about? It can do so when evolution is acting on a group as opposed to the individuals. For obvious reasons a group of strongly cooperating individuals does better than a group of selfish individuals. Situations where this is favoured, over the selfish motives, are ones early hominids found themselves in: guarding against much stronger predators (e.g. lions, away from forest protection where all other primates stay), protecting a dwelling or campsite that had helpless infants and children, and cooperating in a hunt that would be very difficult to undertake alone (though chimpanzees do hunt in a group quite well). What are the strongest stimulations for such a group to cooperate? Probably the first two factors. Think of how awkward a recently exclusively bipedal hominid would have been on the savannah, unable to run faster than a dog.
What is interesting in the mathematics of the modelling is that cooperation is an unstable equilibrium, with adverse environmental conditions leading often to the predominance of selfish cheaters (think for ex. if groups were forced to break up, the cooperators would do worse, as in the worst of the communist era when religious and family ties were torn asunder). However, once an environment stabilizes, a group of cooperators that can exclude cheaters will do better after some time and once again the cooperators will predominate.
Our species has obviously done well by virtue of its altruism and intense cooperation. Many biologists now believe intelligence involved mostly to keep track of, and negotiate personal social interactions. In this light we can see that tribalism and war are the necessary (primitive) by-products of the positive virtues of gathering into groups for the benefit of one particular ensemble, and this is the flipside of such group selection. Why did true eusociality (with altruism) evolve so rarely in animals, out of millions of species, only in one primate, several insects, certain shrimp, and a naked mole rat species? Presumably because the necessary conditions (defending a nest) or prior required behaviours (willingness to aggregate in groups as opposed to having solo existence) were not there to counterbalance the 'selfish gene' tendency so powerful in evolutionary forces. Perhaps whatever DNA changes lead to eusociality are so complicated, and require so many genetic changes, that it is a highly unlikely event purely statistically. Or we can conclude simply that individuals really do much better alone in certain niches and have little advantage to be together, such as the solitary cats, and fishes, in which altruism has never evolved.
Nonetheless, a survey of humanity from a completely unbiased biological viewpoint (from the telescope of an extraterrestrial computer, for ex.) would have to conclude there is only one reason we have been successful for ourselves, and that is because of those tendencies to cooperate and aggregate selflessly. There will be always cheaters or selfish individuals who act kind of as parasites in the group at the expense of those who share or work, and there are modes of behaviour we have to punish those individuals if they are called out for this, whether through social ostracism (gossip, or disrespect for the always unemployed or beggars) or legal remedies (check-forging leads to jail), interestingly in ant colonies a similar situation arises wherein some workers occasionally attempt to become queens but are punished by the other workers usually very severely (often killed). Analogously, ants and bees have been the most successful insect species (in absolute numbers) due to their altruistic societies.
But will we channel enough cohesion to understand the problems we are now facing collectively? Unfortunately this requires seeing beyond our minute horizons on to the breadth of the whole suffering planet and understanding how our place here is dependent on biology and equilibrium, not on money and the petty status we crave within our small lives and groups, and this requires a huge effort of intellect and distance from what our instincts are asking from us or rather are forcing us towards: better reputations, more money, more comfort and each year more satisfactions. Can one hope to reduce one's reputation, one's income, one's comfortable existence for the sake of future generations? It might be too much to ask of humanity, despite our having the necessary tools within us.
In the spirit of cooperation which I have held dear as an ideal my whole life, hear some more from the wonderful fusion band Free Fair, their second and third records, the first having been posted a couple of weeks ago. The style is quite reminiscent of the 2 X Noctetts I posted before, a bit more jazzy than the usual fusion we like to feature here. And isn't the cover of Free Fair 2 magnificent? Note the wonderful line drawing on the back cover which I reproduce here below.
Music is the pre-eminent social art, a powerful crazy glue like laughter and humour which binds individuals together. I've discussed this before at length. Anthropologists report that some primitive tribes don't know numbers, some have simple grammars, some have no representational art, some no culture of costuming, some no distinction even between colors, just shades of grey, and some even have no creation myths or even religion-- but every single human group on earth enjoys music intensely and fundamentally incorporates dance, song and music-generating instruments into social events. It is truly a human universal. Neurobiologically, the connections seen in functional MRIs upon listening to music are seen to be not just between higher cortex, auditory centres and emotional centres (amygdala or other parts of the limbic system) but throughout most or all areas of the brain. And you and I know this, whenever we listen to beautiful records such as these ones.
alternative cover of the 1st Free Fair