Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The genetics of altruism

Are humans innately good, or innately selfish?

That's a fundamental question when it comes to discussing morality, law and society. If humans are innately selfish, then the only way society functions is by the majority forcing everyone to behave, through tools of social control like government, religion and culture. Without such control, the argument goes, society would disintegrate into a Darwinian anarchy where the strongest reigned through force and cruelty.

In addition, this worldview lends weight to the idea that only an extrahuman authority -- such as God -- can effectively impart a moral code, for if humans are naturally immoral or amoral they simply would not bother to develop one. In such a view, religion is not merely a tool for enforcing whatever society defines as morality; it is an essential source of morality that transcends society.

If humans are generally good, however -- if they are hardwired for altruism, for example, or if our social nature makes us seek approval, and render cooperation and compromise common and successful survival strategies -- then the importance of religion and tradition and government all shrink. They are still useful as founts of distilled wisdom and as a way to enable or compel group behavior. But they are not in and of themselves a necessary component of virtue.

The reality, of course, is as variable as the human experience. Like any other distribution, human behavior follows the bell curve. So even if most humans are innately good, there will be some that misbehave. And if our natural state is despotic anarchy, there would still be a few selfless saps trying to help others. Throw in other considerations, like love of family or economic ties, and the picture becomes more muddied still.

That said, a couple of recent developments shed some interesting light on the subject.

Last year, molecular researchers identified what they called an altruism gene that is present in almost all living things. It's not a gene that makes people give to charity; it's a gene that appears to explain why some cells in a multicellular organism give up their ability to reproduce -- and thus commit genetic suicide -- in order to help the organism as a whole function better. Their conclusion? The function arose for a separate purpose -- letting cells shut off temporarily useless processes to conserve energy -- and was then co-opted by evolution in multicell organisms, in something of a biological bait-and-switch. The resulting combination was so successful that all later organisms retained it.

Another study around the same time found that altering a single gene in a species of bacteria turned resource "cheaters" into cooperative organisms. Further, the genetic change occurred naturally in response to environmental stress. In other words, the stress apparently promoted a genetic change that favored cooperation.

Couple that with demonstrated examples of altruism in the animal kingdom, and it's clear that altruism is compatible with evolution.

If altruism can arise spontaneously on the cellular level and among lower animals, it seems obvious that it can arise naturally at the behavioral level of intelligent species, which have an advantage that bacteria do not: the ability to calculate the costs and benefits of cooperation.

It could start out as loyalty to a family group, wherein a parent, for example, sacrifices itself to save its mate or offspring and thus protect its genetic legacy. As populations grow that definition could be expanded to include clan or tribe, based on a reciprocal economic calculation: I'll come to your defense if you come to mine, increasing our overall chances of survival.

Society would eventually develop ideals and traditions that enforce such altruism, allowing it to apply to larger and larger groups. It would confer approval, admiration and reproductive success on those who are generous or take risks in its defense. As social creatures we are especially susceptible to "doing what is expected" and seeking the approval of our fellows.

And that, in fact, appears to be the case, as a more recent experiment shows.

The experiment hooked up college students to MRIs and had them make decisions about whether or not to give money to various charities. What they found was that deciding to give money produced activity in two different areas of the brain: the part responsible for social attachment, and the same pleasure centers stimulated by food, drugs, money and sex. In other words, acting altruistic made them feel good, as well as involving a bit of social calculation.

Such altruism may be learned rather than innate; the study doesn't attempt to establish a root cause. But it demonstrates that good behavior does not necessarily need ongoing external enforcement. People do not have to be coerced or scared into doing good; they simply need to be attached to a society or family group that prizes such behavior.

This also demonstrates that altruism can in fact be quite selfish. Altruistic acts can lead to very real individual benefits, such as increased reproductive success, enhanced social stature or simply feeling good about oneself.

But such benefits must be weighed against the potential cost. At the extreme, altruism is detrimental: the warrior who is killed in combat never gets a chance to enjoy the fruits of his sacrifice. He may still consider the risk worth it, but how can we explain the person who deliberately sacrifices himself to save others, like the soldier who throws himself on a grenade?

In some cases, even such extreme decisions can be selfish, genetically speaking. A suicide bomber, for instance, knows that his family will probably be taken care of. A soldier's family gets a government pension and the thanks of a grateful nation.

But absent those scenarios, I think such examples demonstrate the power of societal expectations. People raised in a given society often internalize that society's values. The stronger their attachment to the society, the stronger the internalization. Further, people who live when others die often experience "survivor's guilt." Many people talk about how they "couldn't live with themselves" if they behaved in a way society disapproves of. The cost-benefit analysis is different for every individual, of course, but many people would apparently prefer to risk near-certain death than live with the knowledge that they chickened out, or let others die so that they could live.

So it turns out the question I posed at the beginning of this article is a bit misleading, because in many cases being good and being selfish are the same thing. But overall I think the evidence points to morality and altruism being biologically based but socially defined. Religion is a part of society, and thus contributes to defining society's morality just like any other philosophical system. Religion is also a singularly powerful social tool for enforcing that morality -- though like any tool it can also be used for ill. But morality can flourish absent religion, just like religion can flourish absent morality.

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Blogger machete said...

Very interesting post.

2/20/2007 8:54 PM  
Blogger Not Your Mama said...

Great post Sean.

As I would put it in crude laymens terms: smart people figure out that treating others well and playing fair benefits everyone, self included.

2/21/2007 7:48 AM  
Blogger 10Matt39 said...

"People raised in a given society often internalize that society's values." I think that what happens is that people love praise and they love to think that other people will praise them. That's one of the ways society has of controlling us. But what does this have to do with morality? Wouldn't the moral person do the right thing regardless of praise?


3/14/2007 9:16 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Wouldn't the moral person do the right thing regardless of praise?

Yes, but what is "the right thing" and how did the moral person learn what that was?

I'd argue that society defines what the "right thing" is. And so because we seek societal approval, we internalize what societal morals are.

Is every society's morals equally good? No. And in societies where the group is valued far more than the person, society's morals can suffocate the individual. So there is always room for individual thought on what is "the right thing" to do; that is how morals change.

3/15/2007 1:10 PM  
Blogger 10Matt39 said...

"Yes, but what is "the right thing" and how did the moral person learn what that was?"

Good question. But when you wrote, "Is every society's morals equally good? No.", you were making a judgment. What standard did you use to make that judgment?

Actually, I think we're in very common agreement upon what is the right thing, even when we don't know how we learned it. We seem to know that unselfishness is the right thing; that honesty is the right thing; that respect is the right thing, etc.

3/15/2007 2:53 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

When you wrote, "Is every society's morals equally good? No.", you were making a judgment. What standard did you use to make that judgment?

Well, I supposed I could argue that the statement is objectively true, in that if morals are the creation of society, than they are only as good as the society that created them, and being human creations some will be better than others.

But the simple answer is that I use the morals inculcated into me by the society I inhabit, modified by my own thinking on the subject as I've lived my life. Societally defined morals are a starting point for personal morality, not the end point.

We seem to know that unselfishness is the right thing; that honesty is the right thing; that respect is the right thing, etc.

Sure. But it's no coincidence that those are the very values that strengthen society rather than weaken it.

And note that there are many levels of interaction. Which is why honesty is not actually the best policy in every instance, and why being "unselfish" can actually be a very selfish behavior.

3/15/2007 3:04 PM  
Blogger 10Matt39 said...

Hi Sean,
I guess then the question might be more like, "Does every society's morals equally suit me?" And of course the answer is no.

If I thought that unselfishness, honesty and respect were only those things society inculcated into me, I would reject them as central to my morality. This is because society is always trying to get people to sacrifice themselves for the good of others. Society manipulates us through our feelings of pride, fear and self esteem. I would be foolish to allow myself, without rational thought, to be sacrificed on the basis of some feelings I might have. I understand the need to make sacrifices in order to keep society working but I'll make those decisions rationally.


3/16/2007 6:50 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

I would be foolish to allow myself, without rational thought, to be sacrificed on the basis of some feelings I might have.

Agreed, and I stated as much in an earlier comment. My point is that our perception of what is "right" is shaped by the society we're raised in. It's where many of our unexamined assumptions about morality come from. Once we start examining those assumptions, of course, we start developing our own personal moral code.

But those unexamined assumptions did not arise randomly. Some can be defective, but there's a reason that the most basic bits of morality -- honesty, altruism, etc. -- stand up to analysis. Society would not function well if its basic underpinnings were not solid.

3/16/2007 10:04 AM  

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