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Darwinian Altruism

(Text as at 19/08/2007 14:09:36)

(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)

If I am an animal that has evolved through random mutations and Darwinian selection, what benefit is there to me from committing random acts of kindness?

I’m not sure what your question is really asking. There’s no necessary connection between the origins of a trait and its current use. Presumably the skills we have that enable us to solve abstract mathematical puzzles (or financial ones) evolved for other reasons, but that doesn’t present a paradox (though Plato got into a muddle about how we know mathematical truths, and thought we recollect them from a previous disembodied existence when we were in direct contact with them). Similarly, the fact that we’ve evolved from ape-like ancestors doesn’t mean we ought to carry on acting like them. After all, we don’t live like hunter-gatherers any more.

But evolutionary theory can at least attempt a solution. Basically, evolution will favour any gene that enables its possessor to survive and reproduce. There are at least two possibilities.

  1. One is Group Selection: groups of social animals that co-operate with one another and help one another out are more likely to flourish than those that don’t. But there’s a worry that in the case of fatal altruism, how would the altruistic gene be passed on? So,
  2. There is Kin Selection: you share genes with your relatives, so even if you perish saving one of them, your genes are passed on.
None of this is any use if the altruistic-gene is novel-to-you, but genes “sleep” for generations before their usefulness arises, or something like that.

Kin Selection is also wheeled out to explain the evolutionary origin of homosexuality.

There has been a lot written on this subject recently. An excellent book on the topic of the evolution of altruism (though one I’ve not finished reading) is "Sober (Elliott) & Wilson (David) - Unto Others - The Evolution & Psychology of Unselfish Behaviour". The classic text on evolutionary psychology generally is "Barkow (Jerome), Cosmides (Leda) & Tooby (John), Eds. - The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture". A less demanding text is "Sterelny (Kim) & Griffiths (Paul) - Sex and Death - An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology".

See also the three1,2,3 following remarks.

Table of the Previous 3 Versions of this Note:

Date Length Title
16/08/2007 20:49:55 1995 Darwinian Altruism
16/08/2007 20:47:02 1995 Darwinian Altruism
16/08/2007 14:44:10 24 Darwinian Altruism

Note last updated Reference for this Topic Parent Topic
19/08/2007 14:09:36 522 (Darwinian Altruism) Simon - T1S1

Summary of Note Links from this Page

Darwinian Altruism 2 Darwinian Altruism 3 Darwinian Altruism 4    

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Summary of Note Links to this Page

Darwinian Altruism 2 Simon - T1S1, 2      

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