Altrusim as a compass for consciousness?

Jul 19, 2013


Discussion by: Bixelate

Let me start by saying I am not in any way an expert on altrusim or consciousness. However, when I look up online the possibility that we can measure consciousness in animals by their altruistic behavior I get nothing. I am curious to know other people's opinions on this possibility. Are there different levels of consciousness? Say…a dog is a more conscious individual than a bird, or a bird more concious than a turtle, etc. Are the altruistic behaviors of dogs of a greater significance than the altruistic behaviors of birds? Would these behaviors give us a different level of how conscious or not conscious a being is? Give me your thoughts!

35 comments on “Altrusim as a compass for consciousness?

  • 2
    Peter Grant says:

    There may be a link between empathy and consciousness, but in nature the greatest acts of altruism are performed by virtually mindless automata like the social insects.



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  • In reply to #2 by Peter Grant:

    There may be a link between empathy and consciousness, but in nature the greatest acts of altruism are performed by virtually mindless automata like the social insects.

    How do you discern which act of altruism is the greatest?
    How do you know which insects are mindless automata, wich are mindfull and which are not automata?



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  • In reply to #3 by siger:

    How do you discern which act of altruism is the greatest? How do you know which insects are mindless automata, wich are mindfull and which are not automata?

    You can’t clarify something as imprecise as “mindless automata” actually I take that back of course you can, my point is you need what are sometimes called “operational definitions” of your term. So one criterion people use is whether an organism has a central nervous system or not which I don’t think insects have.

    Also, on altruism there is a crucial difference in kinds of altruism. So the standard definition I see in biology for an altruistic act is when one organism sacrifices it reproductive capability to benefit (increase the reproductive capability) of another organism. In biology it all comes down to reproduction because its all about selfish genes. There are lots of example in biology of altruistic acts that make perfect sense from the standpoint of selfish genes. For example, kin selection. One of the most important basic equations in biology is rB>C This defines when an altruistic act for another makes sense from the standpoint of genes. r is the ratio of relatedness, what percentage of genes I share with the organism I’m helping. C is the Cost to me to help and B is the Benefit to the organism I’m helping. So if I share 25% of my genes with person X and I do an act costs me 20 (its not important what the units are it could be food, likelihood of mating, etc.) and yields my relative a benefit of 100 then from the standpoint of my genes its totally the right thing to do. If the cost to me is say 200 or I only share 10% of my genes it wouldn’t make sense.

    On the insects the reason there is so much altruism among insects like termites and ants is because of the queen structure all the insects in a colony share a huge amount of DNA, I forget the percentages but I think many of the workers essentially all have the same DNA or at least a huge percentage, much more so than with other animal mating habits.



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  • Red Dog,

    The Selfish Gene is, of course, about genes. Organisms are different. And culture (not only human) is even a step further away from genetics.

    What you call the biological “standard” altruism is very problematical. How would an organism know which other organisms have 1/8, 1/4 or 1/2 of its own genes?

    With humans it is still completely different. For which genes does a terrorist kill himself? Why do people adopt children of unknown descent?

    As Richard Dawkins wrote in TSG (foreword 1989): “Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”

    btw: Insects definitively have central nervous systems.



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  • In reply to #5 by siger:

    Red Dog,

    The Selfish Gene is, of course, about genes. Organisms are different. And culture (not only human) is even a step further away from genetics.

    What you call the biological “standard” altruism is very problematical. How would an organism know which other organisms have 1/8, 1/4 or 1/2 of i…

    Sorry for getting the insect thing wrong. On the Dawkins quote I agree completely with what he said and I’ve used other quotes like that to refute people on this site who think selfish genes can explain all human morality. My point was that the definition of altruism is complex and there are different definitions depending on the context.

    As for animals not knowing — and let me be clear this isn’t my theory this is boilerplate stuff if you disagree with kin selection you are disagreeing with some of the leading evolutionary biologists including Dawkins — but these kinds of models occur all the time in biology. You look at the behavior and you create an hypothesis based on environmental factors and factors about the animal and you test those factors. And kin selection and the formula in my previous comment have lots and lots of empirical evidence.

    As to how they came about — why do animals eventually get genes that can be modelled with theories like kin selection — that’s a complex issue all on its own and beyond my depth but that this model predict biological altruism is very well supported by evidence.



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  • 7
    Bixelate says:

    my goodness do I love you people out there. I’ve learned SO much since starting on this journey and I am so grateful to everyone who has responded to my posts with respect and genuine help. I do plan on reading the selfish gene sometime soon, but have SO many books I’m trying to get through right now (I am reading the origin of species at this time, as well as parallel worlds by dr. kaku and another book called born on a blue day that has to do with asperger’s) So I’m trying to keep up! Thank you again everyone!



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  • In reply to #7 by Bixelate:

    my goodness do I love you people out there. I’ve learned SO much since starting on this journey and I am so grateful to everyone who has responded to my posts with respect and genuine help. I do plan on reading the selfish gene sometime soon, but have SO many books I’m trying to get through right no…

    If you are looking for a good introduction on altruism and biology, one that is fun to read but also has some good depth I would highly recommend the book The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness by Oren Harman. Its an excellent overview of both the scientists (their lives and motivation) who developed the ideas and the ideas themselves. I first learned about that formula I mentioned in my previous comment in that book. I also like that he doesn’t just describe the core science issues but the general intellectual climate and why people thought (and still do think) that the question of altruism was so interesting.



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  • 9
    phil rimmer says:

    A link through of sorts may exist in mirror neurons. On the one side mirror neurons allow us to copy the slightest muscle usage in the face and body of another and thus experience for ourselves with quite a degree of finesse the feels another. Sad faces, slumped body posture results in us experiencing some of this for ourselves as our face and body (automatically!) adopt a similar disposition. Empathic behaviours and the like become major output modes for us, given this visceral engagement with others misery.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcJxRqTs5nk

    On the other side it may be that mirror neurons have made possible better theories of mind and more vivid conscious experiences.

    It has been argued that the quality of a unified conscious experience we have of ourselves in a coherent narrative form may have come about after we started to have a theory of mind about others. Our concerns about behaviours are first and foremost about the behaviours of others. It is others that might hurt us or steal our food, or help and protect us, so early on we formed models of how others behaved under certain circustances to better predict what they may do. This model is a model of their minds and could be reasonably predictive. So the suggestion is that it was only later that we chose to model our own behaviours.and have this same type of meta-knowledge of ourselves.

    This makes sense. Modelling just one side of an interaction is incomplete. We must put ourselves in the picture to predict what we may do. Am I feeling fit strong and healthy today? Am I unloved? Horny, hungry, happy? Am I da Man? I change and if I am to model efficiently and quickly I must be updating my model to keep it up to the minute for maximum predictive power. (Do I need to run or fight yet or concede and roll over? How about now?) We must keep this self model up to date so that our body/face reading of others (and hence their minds) can be experienced and tested against our own. (I’m scared-er than he is…)

    Much of our conscious experience I suggest is this “self” conscious experience of self model maintenance (How am I now?). Conscious experience seems related to things of high salience and is like a marker for suitability to form memories. This self model maintenance is a particularly human (higher primate/ mammal?) addition and adds extra salience to particular external factors. (Yummy wildebeast make me happy…).



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  • 10
    Pauly01 says:

    Social animals with large dependence on each other , act more altruistically than more independent solitary animals. So I think it’s fair to say the more social the animal is the more altruistic it is.

    Its also fair to say, that their is a relation between altruism and brain processing and conciousness.

    So in my opinion co-operation, social interaction , altruism , brain processing , conciousness all develop and evolve parallel to each other.

    Are the altruistic behaviors of dogs of a greater significance than the altruistic behaviors of birds?

    I’d compare domesticated dogs and domesticated cats. Dogs and cats had a similar history of evolution(I think! both cooperated and hunted in packs) , both are intelligent , yet the perception is that a dog is the more good natured. Would it be fair to say that the newly found sedentary and solitary , lifestyle of the domesticated cat is responsible for this apparently less better nature. Hope I’m not stereotyping , it seems to make sense to me.



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  • 11
    Peter Grant says:

    In reply to #3 by siger:

    How do you discern which act of altruism is the greatest?

    Greater love hath no man etc.

    How do you know which insects are mindless automata, wich are mindfull and which are not automata?

    Compared with humans, insects are mindless machines. Though they may feel pain.



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  • 12
    Pauly01 says:

    In reply to #2 by Peter Grant:

    There may be a link between empathy and consciousness, but in nature the greatest acts of altruism are performed by virtually mindless automata like the social insects.

    But we can’t surely make any moral deductions from this , I read some where that even some bacteria co-operate, I think its impossible to call that altruistic in the broader sense. Hormone and enzyme regulation in your body , do you view that as altruistic?.



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  • 13
    Peter Grant says:

    In reply to #12 by Pauly01:

    But we can’t surely make any moral deductions from this ,

    I don’t. Altruism isn’t necessarily always good, too much can kill you.

    I read some where that even some bacteria co-operate, I think its impossible to call that altruistic in the broader sense. Hormone and enzyme regulation in your body , do you view that as altruistic?.

    Why not?



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  • 14
    Pauly01 says:

    Got this definition from Wikipedia

    “Altruism or selflessness is the principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others”

    It seems Altruisim does not imply compassion or the need for higher thought.

    Every time I hear that word , it is used as the basis for our morality , from an evolutionary perspective. So I got my wires crossed somewhat.



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  • 15
    Peter Grant says:

    In reply to #14 by Pauly01:

    Every time I hear that word , it is used as the basis for our morality , from an evolutionary perspective. So I got my wires crossed somewhat.

    Quite understandable, we are constantly bombarded with absolutist “morality”. I’m glad you brought it up because it gives me another opportunity to criticise essentialism:

    Platonic, idealised altruism does not exist people (except perhaps in the social insects). Get over it! We generally don’t like watching others suffer because it actually hurts us as well.



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  • 16
    Consciousmess says:

    This is a good hypothesis to test, if it can be operationalised. How does one standardise altruism over different species?



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  • 17
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #16 by Consciousmess:

    This is a good hypothesis to test, if it can be operationalised. How does one standardise altruism over different species?

    The standard measure of altruism in biology is reproductive potential. So if one organism sacrifices its reproductive potential so that another can improve theirs that is considered altruism. I mentioned earlier there is a formula that determines when it makes sense (from the standpoint of selfish genes) for one organism to sacrifice its reproductive potential for the benefit of another organism that shares some of its genes. So this measurement is completely species independent. Of course how you quantify things will vary tremendously across species.

    Another way to look at it though is that altruism done for the sake of your genes isn’t really altruism at all. So another possible definition is that True Altruism is when an organism sacrifices its reproductive potential for another organism and the two don’t share the percentage of genes required by the formula.

    That also happens and can be explained by selfish genes. Its called reciprocal altruism when an organism sacrifices for a non kin but there is a high probability that they will receive a commensurate benefit in return. Of course you could argue that this isn’t really altruism either since its only altruistic if you take a short time frame



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  • 18
    Peter Grant says:

    In reply to #17 by Red Dog:

    Liked all of that except this bit, what do you mean by this:

    So this measurement is completely species independent. Of course how you quantify things will vary tremendously across species.

    Altruism is not for the benefit of the “species”, but for the benefit of the genes, but the genes still have to be in the same species or gene-pool, surely? Otherwise it’s clearly some sort of misfiring.

    Edit: On second thoughts, I see what you mean now. Thought there was a conflation of inter- and intra-species altruism here. I see you did mention reciprocal altruism.



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  • 19
    The Jersey Devil says:

    My personal experience tells me that I have an ability to identify emotions that I feel in other people. I also know that others can identify with my emotions.

    This must tie in to consciousness, though I’m not clever enough to figure out how. Comment #9 by Phil Rimmer strikes a chord of truth to me.



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  • 20
    Peter Grant says:

    In reply to #19 by The Jersey Devil:

    Comment #9 by Phil Rimmer strikes a chord of truth to me.

    Me too! Just think of consciousness as subjective experience, empathy broadens the range of experience available to us.



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  • Upon what criteria do you rank animal consciousness? how endearing? how alert? how active? how much eye movement? (I noticed that I ascribed more intelligence and awareness to tropical fish such as corydoras that can move their eyes), how fast it reacts when you poke it with a stick, how much care it gives to its young, how non-aggressive it is…

    Here is how I think we should proceed. Put people in various brain scans in various states of sleep, alertness, near death and hyperconscious with psychedelics. See if you can find some patterns that correlate with subjective level of consciousness. Now put an array of animals through those same scans and see if you can see the same patterns, and see if they correlate with subjective guess on degree of consciousness.

    I have always found in arrogant for example to assert both that fish are not conscious and that they cannot feel pain. I see absolutely no evidence to support that. To me it is a religious idea, imagining it must be so because man is so bloody wonderful, he must have many unique properties. Given how little time man had to split off from his cousins, I would be surprised if he had even one truly unique property.



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  • In reply to #1 by siger:

    There exists an interesting paper on the testing of animal consciousness at PubMed

    I think what they are talking about is being awake enough to notice events and remember them.
    That requires you to be conscious, but it does not require consciousness, a thing inside experiencing a movie.



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  • 23
    Timothy McNamara says:

    Altruism has been observed in great apes, but as far as I’m concerned the number two intellect after you and I, is the raven. They exhibit no obvious displays of altruism, other than males waiting and watching whilst their partner gorges herself. Then, I guess is their observed ‘funerals’. My study has led me to believe, however, these rituals are just the birds of the “postcode” visiting the corpse to communicate with all the other birds to determine the one who’s missing. (A dead raven has none of the identity cues the other birds call upon)

    P.S Original Poster’s placing of dogs before birds is highly implausible, at least regarding cognitive ability, problem solving, language.. let’s not forget a Raven’s beak is as hard as steel and as accurate as a fine set of tweezers. Oh dear, my bias is showing….proudly. PLEASE tell me you’ve seen Joshua Klein’s TED lecture where he builds a VENDING MACHINE for these life forms.



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  • 24
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #23 by Timothy McNamara:

    Altruism has been observed in great apes, but as far as I’m concerned the number two intellect after you and I, is the raven. And they exhibit no obvious displays of altruism.

    But the hypothesis was that altruism and consciousness were correlated not intelligence. I think a certain level of intelligence is a requirement for consciousness but I don’t think they are the same thing. I think part of the problem is that while intelligence and altruism are fairly straight forward to define consciousness isn’t at all. There are still various definitions. And when I say define here I don’t mean in words, I mean for the sake of an experiment. We can quantify altruism and intelligence but for consciousness its not as easy.

    I do agree that its an interesting idea. People who develop theories about altruism emphasize the importance of what one researcher I was reading called “mind reading”. By that he didn’t mean ESP or anything he meant reasoning in terms of another agent. Not just being able to develop a plan for yourself but understanding the actions of others in terms of their desires and intentions. It seems very likely to me that the same capability to make mental models to help understand how others will act could also be synergistic with developing altruism.



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  • 25
    Bixelate says:

    In reply to #23 by Timothy McNamara:

    P.S Original Poster’s placing of dogs before birds is highly implausible, at least regarding cognitive ability, problem solving, language

    I didn’t put any animal before any other, it was hypothetical ;). Anyway, I prefer ravens over dogs anyhow (I have a tattoo of a raven across my chest!)



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  • In reply to #22 by Roedy:

    In reply to #1 by siger:

    There exists an interesting paper on the testing of animal consciousness at PubMed

    I think what they are talking about is being awake enough to notice events and remember them.
    That requires you to be conscious, but it does not require consciousness, a thing inside experie…

    Consciousness means, depending on the context, “to be conscious ” or the ability “to be conscious”. I don’t understand what this “thing inside” might be. The paper proposes tests of animals “being conscious” in the first sense. If positive, they prove consciousness in the second sense too.



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  • In reply to #26 by siger:

    I don’t understand what this “thing inside” might be.

    Here is another way of looking at it. Is there a moral difference between whacking a dog with a stick and whacking a Japanese robot dog with a stick? Is there something that actually feels pain or just simulates it? Many people have assured me that for example earthworms cannot feel pain, even though they wriggle just like a cat would if impaled on a hook. I think feeling pain is the essence of consciousness. If you have been knocked out for an operation, you do not feel pain. Further your internal theatre shuts down. You don’t even dream. Pain reactions show up all over the tree of life, so I suspect consciousness does too.



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  • In reply to #5 by siger:

    How would an organism know which other organisms have 1/8, 1/4 or 1/2 of its own genes?

    Most mammals somehow avoid incest, so they must have a way of recognising close kin. Perhaps they do it the way we do, by exposure early in life to doting parents and grandparents. Perhaps that can tell by smell or auditory clues. Consider that baby penguins can find mom in quite a large flock. Various birds mate with the same individual each year, but spend the year apart. They must somehow be able to tell them apart even though all birds of a species look identical to us.



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  • In reply to #20 by Peter Grant:

    I have seen many places claim that large brains are very expensive in terms of energy requirements and hence can only be justified
    in highly social species where calculations need to be done to predict the behaviour of others.

    I would think that would lead to empathy as a side effect. That empathy could be confusing for an animal, causing it for example to risk its life protecting the young of another.



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  • 30
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #29 by Roedy:

    I would think that would lead to empathy as a side effect. That empathy could be confusing for an animal, causing it for example to risk its life protecting the young of another.

    That kind of altruism would be very maladaptive from the standpoint of reproductive success so I’m skeptical that happens often. (Note I’m talking about all animals here for humans its a different story and IMO one of the things that make humans interesting, we clearly practice this kind of altruism a lot) There are some specific examples where it does but usually it involves one species conning another, the Cuckoo is a good example and what is going on there probably isn’t general empathy but just that birds are programmed by their genes to have such a strong attachment to the eggs in their nests and what comes out of them that they nurture the young of another species; Its not that they feel empathy in general toward it but that that a false negative (thinking a child wasn’t yours when it was) has such a high negative cost in terms of reproductive success that birds are highly tuned toward making a false positive (thinking a bird that isn’t yours actually is) instead.

    Other examples that I’ve seen either involve animals raised in captivity so their behavior can’t be relied upon as indicative of what they would do in the wild or other examples like the Cuckoo where some animal through a set of odd circumstances leads to a false positive identification as a child.



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  • 31
    BipolarAltruist says:

    Altruism and consciousness are definitely hard topics to understand through reasoning and science alone. To most people, altruism defies reason. I think your best bet is to look to the evolution of world religions and to the field of evolutionary psychology to find links between consciousness and altruism.

    I think the key to understanding altruism is to understand the altruist’s in-group – those who benefit from the altruistic action. So in the case of “mindless insects,” it’s typically other insects in the colony or group that would benefit from altruistic action (i.e an insect exploding itself to protect other members of the colony.) In the end, altruistic action puts concern for the group over concern for the individual. Because of that, I don’t think the altruistic behaviors of any animal imply anything about the level of consciousness of the individual animal. I think altruism is behavioral and consciousness is psychological. Both insects and human beings exhibit altruism, but we can assume the consciousness of the human is much greater.

    Regardless of species, altruism has the same effect – increasing the genetic fitness of others at the expense of the genetic fitness of the altruist.

    The explosion of insects to protect a colony could be paralleled to suicide bombing in humans. In order to understand how altruism and consciousness are connected in other forms of life, I think it’s important to first understand how altruism and consciousness are connected in the human mind.

    Jesus Christ says “No one has greater love than this: To lay one’s life down for his friends.” (John 15: 13) Here Jesus is defining altruism as the greatest form of love. Love is the motivational force behind the majority of human activity – whether it be love for self or love for others. Our passions as human beings stem from what we love. As one of the world’s most prominent religions, understanding how altruism is portrayed in Christianity can give us deep insight into the psychology of this large subgroup within humanity.

    The Dalai Lama is a modern spiritual leader who promotes compassion and secularism through reason and science. There is a film on netflix instant streaming called Compassion in Emptiness in which the Dalai Lama refers to three things that will bring more peace and secularism to a new millennium. (1) Common experience (2) Common sense (3) The latest scientific findings. If you would like to read a summary of the film, I wrote a blog entry about it here: http://bipolaraltruist.com/2013/07/19/the-need-for-secularism-in-a-new-millennium-compassion-in-emptiness-2011/

    “Pathological Altruism” is a fascinating new book on evolutionary psychology and is the first book to examine the negative side of altruism in the human mind: From the abstract:

    “Many harmful deeds—from codependency to suicide martyrdom to genocide—are committed with the altruistic intention of helping companions or one’s own in-group. Therefore it is worthwhile to study how well-meaning altruism can shade into pathology. Although the term pathological altruism has been used to a limited degree in psychodynamic circles, there has been inadequate study of the phenomenon in general, and almost none from a biological, genetic, and evolutionary perspective. In essence, pathological altruism might be thought of as any behavior or personal tendency in which either the stated aim or the implied motivation is to promote the welfare of another. But instead of overall beneficial outcomes, this altruism instead has irrational (from the point of view of an outside observer) and substantial negative consequences to the other or even to the self. This volume presents psychological, neuropsychological, biological, and evolutionary approaches that help account for pathologically altruistic behavior, and goes on to discuss its diverse and profound societal implications. Each of these approaches points to one disturbing truth: What we value so much, the altruistic “good” side of human nature, can also have a dark side. The result is a nuanced counterbalance to the study of altruism and a call for further research.”

    If what I’ve written catches your interest, you may be interested in reading my blog: bipolaraltruist.com

    Best of luck in your search for connections!



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  • 32
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #31 by BipolarAltruist:

    Altruism and consciousness are definitely hard topics to understand through reasoning and science alone. To most people, altruism defies reason.

    I disagree. Altruism in the animal kingdom isn’t that hard to understand at all. Look at my comments here, all of them are just my repeating various things I’ve picked up reading books by Dawkins and others. And via that reading I’ve learned that we can explain altruism in the non-human world of biology very well. Kin selection and reciprocal altruism pretty much explain it all. And the examples that can’t be explained that way such as the cuckoo usually have good explanations as to why an organism is tricked into or just making some mistake thinking that another organism is kin when its not.

    And with insects you don’t need such fuzzy concepts as in group and out group. You look at how many genes the insects share with each other as well as what kind of mutually beneficial relations they enter into with other organisms and that pretty much explains it all. And these things can be quantified rigorously and when they are and they are tested the results conform to the various models very well.

    Where things get complex is when you start to look at humans. There its clear that humans do things that can’t be explained by kin selection or reciprocal altruism. I had a long discussion with some others on another thread and I presented some examples of this, a soldier jumping on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers for example. (the answer some people gave was that this was just another example of a mistake, like the cuckoo the soldier thinks the other soldiers are kin — I think thats a ridiculous explanation)

    So I do agree humans do things and have beliefs about morality that can’t be completely explained yet by biological theories. But that doesn’t mean we have to throw up our hands and say it “defies reason”, on the contrary that’s a sign of an open question where there is more work to do, and IMO a very interesting question. I think one reason the science regarding human morality is so immature is that for so long most people — even most scientists — just thought things like morality were off limits to science and only the domain of religion. Now thanks to people like Sam Harris that taboo is going away.



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  • 33
    Red Dog says:

    This is a follow up to my previous message. So I went back to the book I was reading (Moral Minds by Marc Hauser) and on the very next page there was an example that I think is directly relevant to the discussion: “For example in several bird species and some primates reproductively capable individuals forgo the opportunity to breed. If optimizing genetic output is the evolutionary goal then celibacy is the ultimate maladaptive dead end. What happens in these seemingly bizarre cases is that individuals forgo reproduction in order to help their parents…Helping their siblings helps their overall genetic success”

    So here is a case that seems like irrational altruism at first. Individuals choosing not to breed. But it turns out that the benefit to their siblings (who each share 50% of their genes, the same proportion as children) is a better strategy than reproducing themselves. There is no need to throw up our hands and say “its just love its not rational” we just need to dig a little deeper and understand what’s really going on.



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  • 34
    Peter Grant says:

    In reply to #32 by Red Dog:

    Look at my comments here, all of them are just my repeating various things I’ve picked up reading books by Dawkins and others.

    Yes you do seem to have come along quite nicely since last we discussed this topic. However, even though you are using the correct jargon, I still think you are misunderstanding a few key concepts, for example here:

    Where things get complex is when you start to look at humans. There its clear that humans do things that can’t be explained by kin selection or reciprocal altruism. I had a long discussion with some others on another thread and I presented some examples of this, a soldier jumping on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers for example. (the answer some people gave was that this was just another example of a mistake, like the cuckoo the soldier thinks the other soldiers are kin — I think thats a ridiculous explanation)

    Neither the soldier nor the cuckoo’s host actually thinks that they sacrificing themselves for kin (birds probably lack the conceptual capacity and soldiers probably realise they aren’t related), but they may both feel as if they are. The point is that altruistic behaviour is irrational, from the point of view of the individual it is purely emotional or instictive. It is only from a gene’s eye view that there is any logic to it at all.

    From the genes perspective the soldier’s behaviour is a mistake, just like the cuckoo’s host’s, but this doesn’t make it any less brave or virtuous. Caring for adopted children is also a genetic misfiring, but equally laudable and, I am told, rather fulfilling.



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  • 35
    Red Dog says:

    I read another experiment that is directly relevant to the topic. A guy named Stambach took some macaques. He removed one of the subordinate males, one pretty far down the dominance hierarchy, call him specialist. He taught specialist how to use a gizmo that when a light goes on can deliver some popcorn. The gizmo is complex enough that the others can’t pick it up just by watching specialist. They put specialist back in with the group and with the gizmo and of course the first few times the dominant male takes the popcorn. But then specialist goes on strike. The light goes on but he doesn’t do his thing. Now here is the interesting thing. The dominant macaque doesn’t do the normal aggresive things he would do to a subordinate instead he grooms specialist. Specialist gets the popcorn and dominant takes most of it but gives some to specialist.

    Now this is an example of what I was talking about before, mental models. It seems a reasonable hypothesis that both specialist and dominant have mental models of each other. Specialist knows that dominant wants popcorn and dominant knows that specialist was pissed. Maybe even it shows that macaques have some model of fairness, since dominant used cooperation rather than force. Of course there are other interpretations. A Skinnerian would say all that stuff is just nonsense. But anyway that is the kind of thing I had in mind a while ago about how putting oneself in the place of another could perhaps lead to a sense of ones own consciousness.



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