The evolution of altruism

THE idea of altruism is attractive. The very possibility that at least some of the time humans are able to act with the intention of benefiting others either at some cost to oneself or at least without expectation of a reward is important to secular ethics. For religions it is problematical because every act is in some sense mediated through the faith of the agent.

Of course, there are those who argue that there is no such thing as altruism, that every act is guided by self-interest. This is not the place to argue against egoism as such, although it is relevant to point out that it is very difficult for egoists to prove that there has never been an act of altruism, while acknowledging that this is in itself not proof that there actually has been one.

Altruism might be on firmer ground if it could be shown that it is part of our genetic make up that has evolved. But if altruism is a result of the blind forces of evolution, then that could be a problem for ethics because agency is removed from the equation. If altruistic acts are determined then how can they form part of an ethical framework, which requires conscious agency? For Ian Vine in Embracing the Other the initial paradox is that the apparent selfishness of the human genome is required to make it evolutionarily successful. At the same time, as Vine points out, even Darwin had ‘acknowledged prosocial instincts in animals, involving feelings of “sympathy”‘. But how can this two aspects co-exist? Vine calls this the ‘biological paradox of altruism’. Although he believes that this paradox is real enough, however, Vine points out that ‘traits like readily risking one’s own life on another’s behalf are too widespread in nature to be trivial anomalies’.

Part of the answer comes from biologists who have shown how altruism could have evolved along with selfishness, although they see bio-altruism and bio-selfishness ‘non-teleologically – without any reference to conscious motives, and simply in terms of actual consequences of behaviour for fitness’. But, as Vine suggests, this biological explanation does not explain why ‘humans may make high-risk or predictably costly sacrifices to help non-kin or even out-group members’ as when non-Jews risked torture and death to help Jews during the Holocaust.

Vine argues that intelligent ‘purposiveness means that we direct actions teleologically towards states of affairs that can be consciously anticipated’, which is in stark contrast to the non-teleological nature of evolution. And he adds that while the ‘extent of our power to our maladaptive goals is an empirically open issue’ it is ‘foolhardy to write off all traits at variance with fitness a priori as errors and products of manipulation and self deception’. However, he writes, it ‘remains necessary to outline a biologically coherent account of the means by which we may have become able to enter new realms of social purposiveness, motivated by altruistic concerns for another’s well-being’.

In his attempt to achieve this Vine redefines altruism to incorporate ‘pure altruism and egoism, with mixed motives in between. “Acts qualify as more or less altruistic as long as concern for another’s interests is a sufficient goal to cause them,” writes Vine.

And he tentatively places our ability to perform acts of altruism in our ‘capacity to feel shared identities with other persons’. It may be that this goes back to the dynamics of ‘mother/infant interactions’ which suggests a ‘pre-programmed readiness to attain early forms of self-with-other.

“If initial awareness of self are ‘we-cognition’ of self-with-other and ‘we-volition’ of self-for-other, the possibility of altruism becomes real.” Which means we can escape the ‘enclosed worlds of evolutionary imperatives’. And that also releases the possibility that human ethics transcends material determinism. Presumably also, once ethics is set free then we can we are also capable of consciously promoting our pro-social altruistic behaviour, even if our less pro-social more self-centred motives are never far away.

It has to be said that Vine’s argument is somewhat convoluted. Maybe the answer to the ‘biological paradox of altruism’ is that it isn’t a paradox at all. Remember that evolution takes place at the gene level not the genome level and while the latter can pretend to be altruistic, the former cannot. So, if altruism exists at the gene level, then it has to be genuine altruism not the self-contradictory notion of reciprocal altruism so beloved of many evolution scientists. Obviously, genuine altruism must have evolved because it has some evolutionary benefit to the genome – the happy but entirely unintended consequence is real altruism at the genome level.

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