Monday, August 16, 2010

Altruism and Evolution

In this video a dog is hit by a car on the interstate. Another dog pulls the wounded one out of harm’s way, clearly risking its own life. This is one of the most touching videos I have seen in a long, long time. Beyond its obvious emotionally gripping sentiments, this video tells us something very important about the innate morality of all animals, and particularly mammals.

Critics of evolution often espouse the straw man idea that, because natural selection favors the fittest of a given environment, this automatically means that all animals are inherently selfish and are bent, at whatever cost, towards the propagation of their own genes. With this admission, anti-evolutionists (aka ear-pluggers) conclude that this is far too grim a worldview to swallow and that it cannot account for altruism or self-sacrifice. To explain these “higher virtues” one obviously needs to appeal to a higher power, right? One needs a great standard for absolute morality that can externally impart these abstract, counter-intuitive behaviors into our selfish genes?


What these people fail to take into account are the evolutionary survival benefits that come from in-group/species cooperation and altruism. It is not difficult to piece together. Imagine a species that travels in a small clan or tribe. This clan or tribe would never survive if the pervading moral sentiment was “every man for himself” or “dog eat dog” (Pun, intended). Participating in a self-sacrificing, and sometimes even life threatening, manner within a community only reinforces the collective solidarity that others generally behave the same way. You are inclined to risk your life for someone in your community because you intuitively realize that you may need the same help one day to survive. This is how mammals, who generally travel in extended families and packs, have survived for literally millions of years. This is why when someone is drowning most people most of the time would attempt to rescue that person even though drowning themselves is obviously not conducive to survival and gene propagation. This is why whales often beach themselves purposefully to try and save a member of their own species. This is why harpooned sperm whales are surrounded by other whales, even though this raises their risk of being hunted as well. This is why some species of bats regurgitate blood into the weaker bats in the colony. And so on and so on and so on.

Now, let’s ask ourselves some questions. What god do dogs worship? What god do whales or bats worship? Where are they getting this external drive to be charitable and self-sacrificing to others within their species? Hell, chimpanzees and sperm whales are largely documented to help humans in times of danger, often at their own peril. Where does this come from? They don’t worship any gods that we know of, let alone the Jehovah, Jesus, and Allah we’ve all adopted as our invisible sky fathers. This is because morality is an innate, evolved mechanism that has helped them survive for millions of years.

I’ve got a full post on human morality in the works. But in the meantime thoughtfully consider this video and ask yourself what would make a lowly dog with no soul risk it’s only life to drag a wounded dog off a busy interstate. Then think of how much more so we might exemplify this behavior as human beings.

In reason,

Clint Wells


Robert said...

The biblical perspective is that all creation worships the Creator in some manner. ie ps. 148 Though, I doubt this is the answer you were looking for.

Clint Wells said...

I'm not looking for any particular answer. Having said that I think yours can be immediately disregarded as a better explanation than evolution. For starters it has nothing to say aboit in-group competition and hostility, which is certainly another aspect of moral development in mammals. Secondly, it has nothing to say about out-group enmity. Both of those observations simply would not exist if the reason for altruism amongst animals was to glorify god.

Your answer is falsified by the observable evidence.

Robert said...

Um... Ok. Not exactly sure where you are going, but the concept of non-zero sum games (economic competition) follows logically from a biblical context. This along with private property rights (also logical biblical concept) forms the basis for capitalism.

Hostility entered in when all creation fell.

I don't see the evidence that you speak of.

Clint Wells said...

Hostility entered in when creation fell?? Interesting theory. Any evidence for that? I don't think so.

The evidence we do have, however, suggests a provisional ethical system within animals, and particularly mammals, which includes both in-group altruism/cooperation and out-group competition/enmity. We also see in-group hostility and (rarely) out-group altruism. My point is that your answer of " in-group altruism being because all creatures glorify god" is not only insufficient to explain in-group altruism itself, but also the other categories of the moral spectrum.

This is easily observable in any mammalian tribe/clan/colony.

"gawd did it" doesn't work. Evolution is a much more awe inspiring and, more importantly, empirically verifiable explanation for these things. Lots of xians these days accept evolution and, while heaping upon themselves an entirely new set of burdens, effectively emancipate themselves from the shackles of the intellectual wasteland of creationism.

Robert said...

Clint, I have a problem with your caricature of a biblical argument. My comment that creation worships/glorifies the Creator is an axiom, not an answer (end in itself). There is plenty of room for awe inspiration and study along the topic of Trinitarian creator creature distinction.

Two, altruism isn't the sum and substance of ethics and morality. I think this is a fantastic field of study and can only enrich ones knowledge of the universe. But, obviously I am going to interpret the evidence presented through the critical lens of my own worldview.

Three, given your own academic background (one that is admirable in its own right), I am generally surprised at how much credence you give to the current mainstream academic establishment. (Maybe this is not the case) You frequently refer to a marketplace of ideas. Let me assure you that in the mainstream accredited world of academia, this is not a free market. A monopoly, maybe. A house of cards, surely. And, regardless of what you believe about the existence of God, origins or morality, there is plenty of historic evidence for that.

Mark said...

Is there a distinction to be drawn between altruism based on the clan/tribe theory, and altruism that truly seeks nothing in return and know it will never get anything in return?

Clint Wells said...

Mark - Altruism, by definition, is an act that does not expect anything in return. Commiting a sacrifical act while expecting something in return is reciprocity, which is another very inportant variation of morality. Therefore there is no distinction between the 'clan theory' and pure altruism. When the heroic dog risked it's life to save the wounded dog it was not thinking about how that dog might repay it. Altruism is an innate, evolutionary mechanism.

That is the beauty of the evolutionary explanation. But beyond beauty, it is the most sensible explanation that correlates with observable reality.

Clint Wells said...

Robert - The only reason I used the word 'answer' is because you did. The questions of my original post were predominantly rhetorical.

The 'trinitarian creator/creature distinction' may be awe inspiring. But so are lots of mythological tales. I find reality much more inspiring. I'd rather spend five minutes looking into the Hubble telescope than an entire lifetime of studying theology and relegating my wonder to burning bushes, vicarious atonement, and homosexual bigotry. That's just me.

I never claimed that altruism was the 'sum and substance of ethics and morality.' Where on Earth did you get that?

I think you should focus your critical lens on your own worldview. Are you at all skeptical of Christianity as absolute truth?

I don't give the academic community as much credit as you think. And I never claimed that such a community was THE marketplace of ideas. The current academic community exists WITHIN the marketplace of ideas and will either thrive or die there.

Scientists are human beings and are therefore bent towards all kinds of confirmation biases that must be regarded skeptically. I am skeptical of science. Skepticism is the most fundamental attribute of science and is responsible for all of it's breakthroughs in stark contrast with religious ideas that are appeals to authority emotionalism. Religion tries to evade the marketplace of ideas. Science gladly enters because that is it's greatest strength.

Plenty of historic evidence? I certainly haven't seen any. And besides if there were any, then why would you need faith? It is a remarkably insulated system. It is also a remarkably violent system and deserves conversational intolerance.

Robert said...

I'm interested in hearing more about the marketplace of (surviving) ideas. Is this some kind of an epistemological Darwinism? It rings with populism (I don't see you as a populist). Are you suggesting that propaganda becomes truth so long as it survives for an extending period of time? Or, can we have faith that the marketplace will eventually purge these things? Sorry... off topic. Just curious.

Clint Wells said...

The marketplace of ideas belief states that the best ideas (i.e. provisional truths) surface in free, transparent public discourse. Although it's roots can be traced back to Socrates and Aristotle, I believe that until the Age of Reason the marketplace of ideas was monopolized by religious bigotry.

The advent of the internet has changed everything. Consider the "Everybody Draw Mohammad Day"a few months ago. In one day over 12,000 depictions of the pedophile...I mean, prophet....Mohammad were submitted on the internet. According to the Koran this is an offense punishable by death. It was a reaction to 12 editorial cartoons in a Danish newspaper that resulted in the burning of Norwegian and Danish embassies as well as thousands of death threats across the world. With the internet, however, lobbying for the ideas of free speech in a truly free marketplace, the better idea easily and clearly defeated the impotent and petty protests of pedophile worshipers. There are no internet embassies to burn. No single individuals to threaten with death. Their only way of dealing with the problem was to actually ban the internet in Pakistan....which is one of the most technologically retarded moves in history.

This is a great example of the marketplace of ideas. You think homosexuals are sinners who choose their 'evil' lifestyle and bring natural disasters onto the world? Hmmm...let's see if that survives in the marketplace. Oh wait, it hasn't.

You think your prayers are just as, if not more, effective than the technological breakthroughs of modern medicine? Hmmm...let's see if that survives in the marketplace. Oh wait, it hasn't.

You think the universe revolves around the Earth? Well, that one quite obviously FAILED in the marketplace even though the church tried to snuff it out by threatening to torture and kill Galileo.

Bad ideas will not survive. That's why the marketplace is so important. And consequently, that is why it will reduce religion to the ridiculous intellectual infant that it has been all this time...but without its beating stick. That is, unless destructive technology in the hands of a bunch of lunatics who want to usher their own evidence-less apocalypses destroy all of humanity first.

We'll see.

Robert said...

Religion aside, I agree to some extent (internet as a way of beating propaganda). Although there is still a supply and demand of bad ideas surviving on the internet. I'm not sure that you can say its efficient at selecting truth.

The problem with free markets is that, to a certain extent we have to tolerate the products (ideas) that the masses demand, even though they may not be appealing to us. That is, the free market is divorced from making the moral choice (ie strictly demand things that are good for them). Whereas your ideology is not. It requires that the masses demand "reason" above all else, and that they do so an act of their own collective free will. That's quite the optimistic view of humanity.

Clint Wells said...

Robert - I understand your point but I think you are borrowing too much from the analogy with a free market economy. There is no 'supply/demand' in the marketplace of ideas. Both good and bad ideas are subjected to the same pressures. The masses may want to believe that they'll live forever in paradise. But that does not mean that the idea of the survival of consciousness after brain death will survive in the marketplace of ideas.

I'm very optimistic about human potential...especially human potential emancipated from the shackles of religious stupidity. People like yourself, who believe that all humans are innately evil, do little to help our progress forward. Something to think about.

tripp ethridge said...

reciprocity man!

the wounded dog owed the the heroic dog five bones and a ziplok with 2 doritos