Sunday, May 10, 2009

The evolution of altruism?

I'm rereading this fascinating book called Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Altruism. One of its authors, Elliott Sober, was the professor of my Philosophy 101 class I took at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The complexity of the debate makes it impossible to go into detail here, but the general premise is that the field of evolutionary biology mistakenly dismissed the possibility of altruism's evolution by means of group level selection. According to Sober and Wilson, evolution not only selects the fittest traits at the level of the gene and individual organism, but at the group level as well. They argue that altruism could only be favored by group level evolution. Both gene and individual level evolution disfavor altruism and would not allow it to persist in nature.


Anonymous said...

As someone who knows she would never survive in the wild, and figures that very few humans would, it makes sense for altruism to have been selected for. Haven't read the book (sticking to The Dresden Files), but if small groups of early hominids or a city neighborhood works as a community, they could survive adversity with more children than a community where people throw each other under the bus. It's all about how many of your children go on to reproduce. Have you read "The Selfish Gene"? Might be a good follow up.

Corey said...

Thanks for the post. I haven't read "The Selfish Gene" --- that is Dawkins' book, right? I still have to read Dawkins, but I think that he might be opposed to Sober and Wilson's idea that evolution works at the level of group selection (as opposed to the level of the gene). Not sure about that, but I'd like to get a different perspective.

Sober and Wilson feel strongly that evolutionary altruism is likely - that at least some individuals have evolved to benefit other individuals' reproductive and survival fitness to the detriment of their own, all for the benefit of the group in competition with other groups. But they are a little more unsure that the behavioral mechanism for evolutionary altruists is psychological altruism. They put forward 2 possibilties: there are true altruists who directly care for others OR there are people who in a self-interested way experience pleasure when others do well and feel pain when others do badly. The second possibility is not altruism in a psychological sense since selfishness underlies it.