Is Altruism Inevitable?

March 24th, 2010

In one of those wonderful confluences, two items just came together for me. I read The Social Atom by Mark Buchanan, and my friend Steve posted a link to an Economist piece on evolution, fairness, markets, and religion.

It all circulates around a central conundrum that evolutionists (including Darwin) have been worrying at since Darwin: why do humans, in all cultures, perform selfless acts? You’d think that natural selection would weed out those fools — that cheaters who take advantage of the selfless would have more grandchildren, making the do-gooders vanish from the population.

The answer seems to be group selection: groups with more selfless types survive better than groups of cheaters. (I’ll be posting soon on the controversy over group selection, particularly Richard Dawkins’ intransigence on the issue; suffice it here to say that it makes sense to me. Can’t wait? Wikipedia.)

Which brings me to The Social Atom. Buchanan looks at systems made of of fairly simple “atoms,” and shows how those atoms’ simple properties can result in very sophisticated and often predictable system behavior. Think (my example) of flocks made up of birds with very simple algorithms — “if there’s a bird on one side of you and it moves away, move closer” — imagine flocks of birds flying, and you get the idea.

Likewise the atoms in a magnet: you can ignore all the insane complexities of sub-atomic particles and just think of those atoms as arrows whose direction affects adjacent atoms’ arrow directions. That single property explains the whole system.

This plays out in human systems too. If you had stock markets where everyone throws darts, the ups and downs of the market would map to a bell curve with a normal distribution — thin tails, with very few days of large ups and downs.

But build a system where individuals switch between strategies in response to market movements and  other individuals’ strategies, and you get the distribution we actually have: a much flatter bell curve with fatter tails — many more days with big up-and-down swings. (This is what brought down Long Term Capital Management. A one-in-five-hundred-year event on a normal bell curve was a one-in-five-year event in the actual distribution of market movements.)

That higher-volatility pattern affects the individuals’ decisions — their strategies — but the pattern remains. Because — this is what’s fascinating — it doesn’t matter what the individual strategies are. The simple fact of individuals adaptively selecting strategies is all it takes for the high-volatility pattern to emerge.

How does this all bear on non-kin altruism? In my words: Once you have a vehicle — language — by which cultural values and mores can be transmitted to others and across generations, cooperation and individual selflessness are naturally emergent properties of that system. They’re inevitable, because groups that don’t transmit and enforce those values don’t survive in competition with ones that do.

And that leads me to the study that Steve and The Economist linked to. It looks at fifteen contemporary, small-scale societies (hunters, fishermen, foragers), and asks how the selflessness that makes small groups prosper could have extended to the kind of global altruism that we see today.

They suggest that “such societies may have required norms and institutions that sustain fairness in ephemeral [one-time] exchanges.” Their findings support that: larger communities “punish” cheaters more, and groups with more market interactions and participation in world religions have more “fair” behavior by individuals.

In my thinking: these social patterns and institutions are naturally emergent properties of a species that has language. (A necessary caveat that I won’t expand on here: periodic genocide is also a naturally emergent property of such a species, for the same reasons of group selection.)

Now I don’t know about you, but my spidey sense detects a strong whiff of axe-grinding in Henrich’s conclusions, demonstrating that those favored children of the Right — markets and religion — are what accounts for fairness. (I think this may be why Steve tweeted it?)

But the study makes me wonder (and wonder why the researchers didn’t wonder): do government-like institutions in those societies also enforce fairness and encourage selflessness? Do equivalents of our three branches — strong leaders, councils of elders, and systems of group adjudication — correlate with more fairness and selflessness in a society?

This dichotomy — between market/religion-based institutions and government institutions — also makes me think again about the Jonathan Haidt research I’ve been blogging recently, showing that Republicans give much more moral weight than liberals to group loyalty. Might it be — since liberals believe more in government as the fairness enforcer — that the two groups just define “group” differently (or that liberals’ support for government is based on reasoned belief instead of “sanctity” or “moral intuition”)?

Steven Pinker has suggested that cooperation with non-kin is one of the three main attributes (along with language and tool/technology use) that distinguish humans from other animals. That cooperation put us at the top of the food chain.

Which leads me to reiterate a thought I expressed recently in the comments, in response to those who champion competition as a great good: competition is a second-order effect; its only merit is that it makes cooperation more efficient. If we’d “all just cooperate” (the woolly headed liberal’s mantra, finger twirling in cheek), we’d all be better off than if we all competed. It’s both obvious and stupid. Given a population of selfish social atoms, competition forces people to cooperate in groups.

But competition (a.k.a. “the market”) is not the only thing that improves cooperation. Henrich’s work shows that religion does as well. And it’s not at all difficult to find other instances  — government, for instance — in which cooperation is improved by . . . cooperation.

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