The other day I struggled with the concept of altruism and tried to define it in its purest sense - that of an "unselfish concern for the welfare of others".
I came to my personal conclusion that pure altruism cannot exist. I also came to the conclusion that it doesn't really matter wether it exists or not. As long as we act in ways that have the net effect of benefiting others, whilst at the same time benefitting ourselves, we have a win win outcome that is as good as true altruism.
This debate with myself was provoked by listening to 'In our time' - one of my favoured BBC radio 4 programmes.
I dropped in on the shows website where listeners post their comments and came accross two that caught my attention. The first, by Jon Pasfield pretty much reflects my sentiments, albeit in a much more consise and considered way. The second post, by Nick Inman presents an alternative, somewhat more 'spiritual' view of altruism. Like Nick's post it's well considered and thought provoking but presents an opposing view to my ideas;
I am no expert, but the answer to the whole altruism question seems blindingly obvious. Pretty well all self-mobile organisms have to have a naturally selected instinctive strategy of living in groups to defend themselves and eat. Consider sardines at one end, albatrosses at the other end and humans somewhere in the middle. In most species maximum efficiency is obtained by individuals co-operating with others in addition to their own direct progeny. As individuals they also have to have a naturally selected instinctive strategy for maximising their individual reproduction. These two instincts are bound to conflict in many situations, and the most successful organisms are those which can manage this conflict in the best way. Sometimes one instinct will prevail, sometimes another. In order to do the co-operating bit well, the organism needs to be driven to join groups and help these groups work efficiently. The other members likewise. So they all have to help each other. Some additional points: In many situations this will require the group to band together to fight other groups of the same species. Instincts are pretty blunt instruments, (consider mothers who care extensively for medically doomed children to the detriment of their healthier children). So don't expect every case to look sensible. Inherited instincts are as variable as other inherited features, such as height, so don't expect all individuals to follow the same balance of stategies. Human instincts have evolved over millions of years, so don't expect them all to be appropriate for recent environmental and sociological developments, though many seem to be so. Humans developed the ability to think and reason and an instinct to do so. So a lot of ideas and culture have grown up on the basis of instinct and the observed situations met. These ideas continue from person to person as that is generally more efficient than each person thinking up their ideas from scratch.
An alternative, (perhaps a little fuzzy) view;
This programme, unfortunately, missed its own point: “how can evolutionary biology explain altruism?” (Note the loaded “how”.) The disussion seemed to accept altruism at its zoological definition – an act by one animal that benefits another – while playing down the vital qualifier: “at its own expense”. The first dictionary definition of altruism is: “the principle or practice of unselfish (or disinterested) concern for the welfare of others”. This throws three unscientific words into the debate which would have been worth a few minutes thought if only to dismiss them. Altruism is not merely “being nice to each other” as if we were zebras nudging each other towards the juiciest bits of grass. But even if we accept this definition, Richard Dawkins’s genetically-coded “rule of thumb” advising us to be “nice” to each other because, as members of a tribe, we expect reciprocity doesn’t work in practice. Look at the average rural working village (not the commuter villages around Oxford though), which is not that far removed from the tribal settlements on the plains of Africa where our DNA was perfected, is seething with rivalries, sometimes between members of the same family who are willing to go their graves before they talk to let alone do a favour to their neighbours. Altruism does not mean giving to others out of the obligation to clan ties or for any gain, perceptible or imperceptible including the expectation of a pat on the back or the assuaging of a sense of shame or guilt. It is, in Neo-Darwinian terms, doing something which has a tangible cost to you (and might even risk your life) for no obvious benefit. An extreme example would be the harbouring of Jews by gentiles in areas of Nazi occupation during the Second World War. Such people had nothing to gain and much to lose - they risked extinguishing their own gene lines for helping someone belonging to another, tight-knit clan. Another, perhaps seemingly perverse, instance is the young suicide bomber – who is acting for the greatest good according to his own criteria. He voluntarily obliterates his own biological code (and that of others who are not in direct competition with him) for no obvious personal gain unless you believe his motivation is purely egotistical: to get to paradise and be surrounded by virgins. I suspect the answer to altruism lies elsewhere than DNA telling us - after millennia of cost-benefit analysis – that it is safer to give strangers a leg up rather than steal their wallets. And all the stuff about epigenetics, mummy fixation (the psychoanalytic solution to the mystery), mathermatical game theory et al just
seem like so much intellectual floundering. None of these approaches end up explaining spontaneous, procreation-threatening acts of human solidarity.
I'd like to spend a little time clarifying why I don't agree with Nick, so bear with me. I'll get round to it soon enough...
Perhaps, when I get the nerve I'll post these thoughts to the In Our Time comments page, but for the moment I'll stand on the shoulders of these giants, like the coward I am :-).