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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Thinkquotes of the day: Altruism simply promotes your own genes?

A boffo evolutionary biologist accounts for altruism:
The mathematical models of population genetics suggest the following rule in the evolutionary origin of altruism If the reduction of survival and reproduction of individuals due to genes for altruism is more than offset by the increased probability of survival of the group due to the altruism, the altruism will rise in frequency throughout the entire population of competing groups. Put as concisely as possible: The individual pays, his genes and tribe gain, altruism spreads. - (E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, p. 282 (Random House: Vintage Books, 1998)


From the movie, Gandhi, Gandhi's advice to a fellow Hindu who had killed a Muslim who had killed his son, and now feared he was
going to hell:
Gandhi sees the man's unbearable grief and remorse. He gently tells him, "I know a way out of hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed - a little boy - and raise him as your own. Only be sure that he is a Muslim..."
The man's expression changes to one of hope. He suddenly sees a way in can undo what he has done and effect a restitution. He can replace his own son and provide a Muslim orphan with a home and parents. It is a perfect solution.

The man baulks, however, when Gandhi insists he raise the boy as a Muslim, but notice we don't hear anything here about genes or even tribes in the genetic sense. It all turns on ideas.

And then of course, in the immortal words of a Jewish itinerant preacher, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers ... " Read the whole thing and ask yourself where altruism means promoting your own tribe?

The major problem with evolutionary biology accounts of altruism is that most people don't even consider the behavior that merely promotes one's own family altruism. Taken to extremes - as it must be, to work the way Wilson needs it to - it is called amoral familism and is widely regarded as a key source of underdevelopment in backward societies.

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