Re: [asa] Altruism

From: David Campbell <>
Date: Wed Jun 13 2007 - 17:39:16 EDT

From a biological evolutionary viewpoint, there are at least four
categories of "altruistic" behavior.

1) self-sacrifice for near kin
2) mutualism-both individuals help each other
3) commensalism or parasitism-one individual is benefitting and the
other has no effect or a negative effect; participation by the second
individual is accidental or unwilling
4) deliberate self-sacrifice without anticipation of a benefit to oneself.

It's easy to see how 1-3 could evolve. 4 is challenging to explain.
One approach is to identify it as a mistaken attempt at 1. However,
this becomes an untestable axiom, as any action could be dismissed by
this. It also seems hard to maintain consistently. E.g., it is
claimed that in a quarrel in a Yanomamo village (a closely studied
Amazonian tribe), people took sides by relationship more precisely
than their language could specify. It is difficult to reconcile this
with a claim that someone putting themselves at risk for a total
stranger is merely a mistaken effort at helping kin.

More plausible are the ideas of group selection, which may perhaps be
considered an expansion of option 2. Within a group, there is often
tension between what would give the most benefit to an individual and
what would be best for the entire group. However, over the long term,
destabilizing the group by selfishly taking advantage may be
detrimental to one's own success. Human culture allows the
transmission of information orally or in writing, as well as via
genes. These can greatly reinforce the ability of the group to
monitor whether individuals or groups are cooperative or selfish. Cf.
Franklin on the need to hang together to avoid hanging separately.

The fact that something happens to be explicable in evolutionary terms
is not a problem for its being enjoined by Christianity; after all,
God's moral laws are not some arbitrary set of challenges but are
partial directions on what's good for us. However, not everything
that seems compatible with advancing by evolutionary success is
morally appropriate.

Some studies try to examine apparently innate tendencies, e.g. by
asking large numbers of subjects about hypothetical situations in
which they can be altruistic or not. However, apparent innateness is
neither proof of evolutionary explanation nor of moral merit.

Dr. David Campbell
425 Scientific Collections
University of Alabama
"I think of my happy condition, surrounded by acres of clams"
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Received on Wed, 13 Jun 2007 16:39:16 -0500

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