Altruism’s Big Hidden Secret
Before I begin going too fast and too far I want to share a little bit of my bias in the interest of full disclosure …
I’m a big fan of the American myrmecologist (someone who studies ants) Edward O. Wilson.
Wilson also conceptualized the field of sociobiology, or the study of the biological roots and implications of social order in living organisms from protozoa to humans (he got a bit of backlash for the suggestions that humans should be included in such a conceptualization, but did it nonetheless). He defines sociobiology as: “The extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organization”
I’m loosely sharing the following based on what I understand Wilson’s take on the sociobiology of altruism to be. All credit for the concepts I’m sharing here go to him, all blame for any incorrect assumptions are mine alone.
Okay, now that we have that out of the way …
What Is Altruism? … a sociobiological perspective
From a sociobiological perspective E.O. Wilson suggests that a particular form of altruism, what he refers to as “hard altruism,” was first and foremost an evolutionary advantage that allowed some lines of humans to prosper over others in a competitive environment.
For example, if an individual were to sacrifice themselves to save another of their bloodline, especially a child, they increased the chances for that individual to go on to breed and pass along the genes they share.
If the genes of an individual include a drive to altruism, i.e.: self sacrifice to save another in one’s bloodline, then these genes would begin to flourish in the population as it grew.
While it may seem that dying to save another’s life is a poor way to pass along one’s gene, it must be taken at the higher level of gene transmission to be understood.
We all share genes with our kin. Mothers and father each share about 50% of their genes with their offspring, Brothers and sisters share about 50% of their genes in common, half brothers and sisters share about 25% of their genes in common as do nephews and nieces with their aunts and uncles (NOTE: only identical twin share 100% of the same DNA).
So if we save another in our bloodline, we are actually saving the genes we share to potentially be passed along to the following generations. Using this logic, if I sacrifice myself for someone in my bloodline I increase the changes of those genes making it to the following generations through the transmission via the individuals I save with my sacrifice. When my sacrifice is greater than 1:1, i.e.: my sacrifice saves more than one person in my bloodline, my contribution to the transmission of my genetic profile to future generations is enhanced.
Now to be clear, this is not suggested to be a conscious choice per se, “Hey if I kill that intruder at the cost of my own life and my entire family gets to live than my genetic profile has a greater chance of being passed along than if I let them die and survive by myself.” Instead the idea is that there were individuals who had this instinct or response, and over time via natural selection the function of altruism led to a propagation of those individual who shared this trait to prosper over those who did not.
Taken further this instinct or drive would lead an individual to proactively sacrifice themselves to ensure or preference the survival of their kin. This would lead to war when resources got scarce, even if those who want to war knew they were unlikely to survive. The need to secure resources for the survival of kin would exceed the need for one’s own survival based on the natural selection for hard altruism.
If we continue to extrapolate even the threat of scarcity might be enough to prompt a hard wired individual to proactively seek to eliminate the threat before it became a reality exerting pressure on the clan or tribe that included one’s kin … pre-emptive war or raids on neighboring clans or tribes.
If the issue of blood relatedness is taken into this equation we might speculate about homicide within the clan or tribe to favor one’s direct offspring leading to high rates of murder.
If you take this one step further it would be reasonable to expect that the favoring of male offspring over female offspring would also be favored, because in a lifetime a male may produce many more offspring than a female is capable of producing.
Now, Wilson doesn’t say this, and I’m not suggesting this “hard altruism” led to these results in human evolution, but the potential is there if the theory holds.
Yet, Wilson does speculate about the function of hard wired altruism in the waging of human wars, and the willingness for individuals to sacrifice themselves for the clan or tribe they belong to if there is a perceived threat to it. I take this further and speculate that this may play a role in the kind of behavior we see in things like suicide bombers and some of the terrorist behavior leading to mass killings of innocents.
The Other Altruism
Edward Wilson also proposes a different kind of altruism, what he refers to as “soft.” In soft altruism the individual is driven to perform altruistic action that will potentially have a benefit to themselves as well. This is the kind of altruism that most people think about when the world “altruism” is used, not the kind that leads to self sacrifice predominately, or the kind that leads to war and murder (hard altruism).
Soft altruism is seen when someone shares their piece of bread with another, or does some act of charity. While there may not be the expectation of immediate return on investment for such action, there is a case to be made for that in evolutionary terms.
Imaging a clan or small tribe of proto-humans or early humans eking out a living in a harsh, competitive environment. The sharing of food would become a way of insuring that when food was scarce it would be used to support the largest numbers of people within the clan or tribe, versus hoarding which would limit the survival of the largest number.
Social Predation and Altruism
In a social species this is an important asset, especially when you consider a predatory species that hunts for food. Humans share a unique trait with other social predatory species, which are few in number on the planet, they hunted and killed animals larger than themselves for food with primitive implements long before killing such animals was assured in the hunt. When compared to other social predatory species humans are in a class by themselves for the size animals they hunted and killed proportionate to themselves.
By example the evolutionary record shows that humans would hunt and kill animals as large as full grown, healthy, adult elephants regularly. Not even a lion pack would take on a full grown, healthy elephant unless it was particularly desperate, and then the outcome would be far from assured. But humans took on such game regularly it seems.
In the case of more modern humans, still using paleolithic technology, game as large as water buffalo and bison were a common food source. Again no other predatory species, social or not, regularly hunts full grown, healthy animals this large proportionate to themselves. If we choose to use extreme examples the Inuit still hunt and successfully kill walrus and whale using primitive weapons (by modern standards). Even a polar bear would be hard pressed to attack an adult male walrus, and would only attempt to do so on land, and then only in desperation. But it is a common for Inuits to hunt and successfully kill walruses in the spring.
The risk taken in such hunts is itself altruistic, the sharing of meat (and other items from the kill) is an extreme form of soft altruism when the kill is shared with those who did not participate directly in it. But the risk of not sharing would mean the potential of being ostracized by the clan or tribe, and in a primitive environment that would decrease the chance of survival many times over.
We see this behavior in many of the social predators; e.g.: lions, wolves, african cape dogs, hyenas … but not in solitary predators; e.g.: tigers, foxes, leopards, bears. So while humans aren’t alone in terms of food sharing, they are unique in the degree to which it is ritualized and formalized in the species.
Other Forms of Altruism in Human Systems
Another way that altruism appears in human systems is via non food sharing care that is exhibited, often to those who are not direct blood kin. Humans have a long recorded history of caring for those who are less fortunate than themselves when the other is unable to care for themselves.
A strong example of this is the taking in of an orphaned child that is not kin. Or the adoption of a child that is less fortunate and can be given greater opportunity to survive and prosper in the adopted home.
Of course any time care is given to another without the expectation of direct return we see this as an act of altruism. But altruism also exists where there is the exception of some form of return for the act performed.
When a “favor” is given with the expectation that it may be returned someday, either directly or indirectly, that too is a form of soft altruism, and would have strong precedent in evolutionary terms as well.
If I can expect that either I or my kin would benefit from an act of kindness I perform today it would behoove me to perform it even if I don’t get an immediate reward for doing so. Over time this ritualized performance of altruistic acts would become part of the background of culture and raise the status of the individual within the group who performed them as well. So in this case altruistic acts would potentially directly benefit me with acts in kind offered at some future point in time, or alternatively by raising my status within the group.
This kind of soft altruism has become ritualized to the point of professionalism in some quarters. I would argue that the entire lobbying industry in the U.S. political system is a form of systematized, ritualized altruism. The lobbyist asks a politician for the favor of a vote on a particular topic of interest to the group they represent with the expectation that in the future the politician can expect the support of that group for their accommodation. It might even be argued that the entire structure of the lobbying industry as it exists is based on the premise that if I scratch you back today, someone coming up after me in the future will scratch my back, ad infinitum, securing the role of the lobbyist within the systematized and ritualized walls of politics at large.
Take from an evolutionary point of view such altruism would give the altruist a potential survival advantage, and again this argues for a basis in the long road of human evolution and the genetic potential carried from thousands of generations of individuals, and now embedded in the social fabric, albeit largely invisibly so.
Does Altruism Have A Future?
Personally I’d argue that we’d have a hard time breeding out altruism from the human species at this point, but culturally modifying how it’s expressed is an entirely different story it seems. While biological evolution occurs regularly, compared to cultural evolution its movement is glacial (although with climate change that’s not the same metaphor it used to be).
We have already seen major shifts in the ethics and etiquette expressed in modern human societies. It’s almost impossible to read a cultural magazine, read a newspaper or watch a news program without some complaint about the decreasing moral values that sustain a desirable kind of altruistic ethics and etiquette we’d like to see on a regular basis.
While the fundamental genetics for altruism are probably largely unchanged in the last generation or so, the way we express ourselves socially has radically shifted.
Take as example the idea of chivalrous behavior from as recently as the 1950s here in the U.S. to the fostered equality between the sexes at the start of the 21st century leading to some very different ways that men and women now interact. It could be argued in many cases that a lower degree of civility exists today than ever … despite the arguable increase in equality between genders in other terms.
While there has always been tension between integrated and assimilated individuals within cultures, especially in those cultures that are high context and kin driven, there is more animosity than every between citizens and immigrants in many places around the world than ever as well.
In the past immigrants were expected to integrate and assimilate, and even when it wasn’t elegant eventually found a way to do so. Now we see a significant proportion of immigrants who demand the right to retain their cultural, ethnic, religious, moral, sexual or language habits or preferences accommodated in the societies into which they emigrated without having to or being expected to integrate or assimilate. This has raised tensions in many societies to untenable levels of discomfort for many.
This could be considered a kind of perversion of altruism when viewed from a sociobiological perspective. If the majority group holds an altruistic form of cultural preference to accommodate the “other” and the minority group is willing to use that altruism to their sole or unique benefit than the function of altruism becomes distorted for the majority who accommodate the minority. It could be argued further that it is only when the function of altruism potentially benefits the entirety of the population exhibiting it that the sociobiological benefits of altruism are realized.
If this were extrapolated to the “Nth” degree we might see a future where only hard altruism remains, as held and fostered by the minority groups perpetrating it. This would be a disaster of enormous proportions using Wilson’s speculations. From a a Gravesian point of view (levels of development within Clare W. Graves’ model of human social-cultural-biologial evolution) the system corrects such errors by evolving culturally to modify the values held to support the greatest gain for the many over the few, to the point of preferencing ever larger systems. The suggestion within the Graves Model is that eventually the “system” becomes the planet that is preferenced over any group inhabiting it. I personally believe we are on the cusp of this level of developmental evolution.
Capitalism and Altruism
If my take on cultural evolution is correct vis-a-vis the Graves Model evolving to correct for the perversion of altruistic impulses in the many to favor the few (think about the 1%/99% argument in the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011), than the system will shift to a means of caring the many over the needs or desires of the few.
Now if this correction as I put it comes to pass it will be a hard pill to swallow for some. There are people on both ends of the few who will be impacted. Those who are living at the extremes of wealth or privilege for instance will not be preferenced the way they are today by the system. There will be much less disparity between the extremes of wealth (as only one example of privilege or preference), but a greater more equanimous distribution of resources, as well as a more equal access to resources.
As an example, think about the elimination of “elite” schools in favor of less schooling available to average or mediocre students with more attention on offering specialized “elite” education to those exhibiting the greatest potential to utilize it, and other opportunities offered to those who demonstrate less potential or talent. No more quota systems or weighted advantage for the disenfranchised or disadvantaged, but no need either.
No more Harvard or Oxford for the rich, privileged and connected, but a pure meritorious system. But, the caveat would be that at any time someone shows the potential and/or talent to succeed in such an institution the doors would become open to them, not just at 17 or 18 on the basis of past performance as an adolescent and a standardized test or two.
This same kind of thinking would extend to the larger social and political systems. Think about the potential of a political system where we would vote on the platforms of the candidates only, without knowing the individual we are voting for by personality. We could arrange a system based on open access to the platforms via Internet cafes opened and run by the government solely for this purpose like public libraries, and these cafes would then also become the voting “booths” of the future as well. Of course we could also have a vetting process to insure that they were legally able to hold office, that including the question of any obvious ethical breach that might make the unsuitable to do so.
Now extend the thinking once again to the business systems and apply only those regulations that insured the distribution of resources, including profit, proportionally to everyone in the organization. A “founder” could be rewarded for their contribution in a single payment of sorts for taking the initial risk and coming up with the initial concept at some rate against the success of the enterprise using a formula for potential future growth out to a specific point in time, say ten years. Or they could exit with a payment of a specific percentage of the value of the entity at any point in time up to ten years, but no more than say 10% of the total value of the entity regardless of the percentage held (as a public company, private companies could be organized differently).
Individuals who come in with specific an highly desirable skills could be given a kind of joining bonus when they start working for an organization, but then fall into a compensation plan that is much flatter than the ones commonly scene today. Even private companies would be forced to follow this flatter plan for compensation.
Shareholders would be forced to take a limited return on investment of any company they held stock in and pay a much higher percentage of unearned income than those paying taxes on earned income (the exact reverse of today’s model of taxation in the U.S. and most other places). This would force a greater valuation of the contributions of the working class, while still rewarding those with wealth to invest. To make this work of course the return on investment for shareholders would have to be weighted by their ability to realize capital gains in addition to dividends paid on their investments.
An Altruistic Transition to the **NEW** Capitalism
We could have a single moment of amnesty for the super wealthy today to take advantage of a last time to payout against their current holdings before moving into a new system, but they would no longer be able to realize the long term advantages of accumulated wealth as they had in the past or current systems. In all cases when such systems went on too long either revolt or conquest led to their demise, with those who had accumulated enormous wealth standing the most to lose, including their lives.
There are a lot of potential issues to be dealt with in such a scheme, but with modern technology all are doable today. The bigger issue is cultural willingness and acceptance to force such a change before a crisis that forces it upon us, e.g.: bloody revolution.
One of the critical factors in establishing such a **new** system would be the lack of governmental regulations. The system needs to be open to exploration and risk. Those who take risks would be responsible for them personally as well as organizationally. For instance if an organization allowed a researcher to do research that caused harm to others both they and the individual causing harm would be held culpable in the full. This would extend the most grievous outcomes for those bringing risk to others in unwarranted and unacceptable ways, especially if the motive were to realize profit.
In such a system non-human interests would be treated with the same degree of protection regarding risk as humans. These non-human interests might include the environment, such as the oceans and seas, water ways, air quality, soil quality. And we would extend this kind of responsibility to biological non-human entities as well, such as plants, animals, and the mirco-biome of the planet.
Making the system self-regulation with the responsibility of assuming 100% of the risk in aiming to realize profit would reverse hundreds or thousands of years of culture of course, but the alternative might be a corruption of the altruistic instinct that leads to our eventual total demise as a species, and even something potentially worst than that.
Okay … short and sweet to end this monologue.
To move in the direction I suggest would mean the evolution of a **new** mind that precedes and exceeds the **new** system.
Fortunately I am suggesting that just such a **new** mind is coming into being even as I write this diatribe on altruism and the **new** system. And, FWIW I believe that business will lead the way, albeit not as we understand “business’ as it is today … but business in the ideal sense of serving a community that includes the producers and the consumers equally with the intention of improving the quality of life for all concerned.
My own small role is to live near the edge of this vision as pioneer speculator with an intention to translate the data present at that edge into usable “mind technologies” we can access and implement now.
Joseph Riggio, Ph.D.
New Hope, PA
P.S. – As always I look forward to your comments and reactions to this bit of current speculation of mine too `’~> … please drop them in place below for me.