bin Laden and the evolution of altruism

May 10, 2011 • 6:18 am

UPDATE: I’ve been informed, and have verified, that Haidt was given the 2001 Templeton Prize in Positive Psychology: a $100,000 award. Wouldn’t you know it?


What does bin Laden have to do with the evolution of altruism?  That was the topic of a remarkably mushy and misleading op-ed piece in Sunday’s New York Times: “Why we celebrate a killing,” by Jonathan Haidt, a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia.  Haidt wants to explain all the revelry and celebration in the U.S. after the announcement of bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan.  To some us—including me—that seemed unseemly, but Haidt thinks otherwise. He sees those celebrations as an exercise in healthy, evolved altruism:

You can’t just scale up your ideas about morality at the individual level and apply them to groups and nations. If you do, you’ll miss all that was good, healthy and even altruistic about last week’s celebrations.

What? My evolutionary antennae twitched at the mention of “altruism.”  What is so altruistic about celebrating the death of a criminal? But Haidt sees the revelry as the result of group evolution:

Here’s why. For the last 50 years, many evolutionary biologists have told us that we are little different from other primates — we’re selfish creatures, able to act altruistically only when it will benefit our kin or our future selves. But in the last few years there’s been a growing recognition that humans, far more than other primates, were shaped by natural selection acting at two different levels simultaneously. There’s the lower level at which individuals compete relentlessly with other individuals within their own groups. This competition rewards selfishness.

But there’s also a higher level at which groups compete with other groups. This competition favors groups that can best come together and act as one. Only a few species have found a way to do this. Bees, ants and termites are the best examples. Their brains and bodies are specialized for working as a team to accomplish nearly miraculous feats of cooperation like hive construction and group defense.

Early humans found ways to come together as well, but for us unity is a fragile and temporary state. We have all the old selfish programming of other primates, but we also have a more recent overlay that makes us able to become, briefly, hive creatures like bees. Just think of the long lines to give blood after 9/11. Most of us wanted to do something — anything — to help.

But the suggestion that human solidarity rests on the same evolutionary process that gave rise to “eusocial insects”—those with a sterile worker caste that helps a queen produce offspring—is bogus.  First of all, that selection is not group selection, but kin selection, or, as I prefer to call it, selection based on inclusive fitness.  As far as we know, the key to the evolution of eusocial insects is relatedness: the sterile castes help mom produce their brothers and sisters, thereby perpetuating their own genes. Haplodiploidy, the system of insect reproduction in which males have only one set of genes, and females two, with fertilized eggs becoming females and unfertilized ones males, may also promote this process. (Under such a system, the female workers share 3/4 of their genes, instead of half in other species, with their mother’s female offspring, increasing the strength of selection for sterility.)  Insofar as selection act to produce group behaviors, it does so through inclusive fitness. Only a few miscreants, like Martin Nowak and Ed Wilson, think otherwise.

And we have no idea whether the “recent overlay” of group behaviors in humans (an overlay that, by the way, need not be so recent, since many of our primate relatives show forms of group “solidarity”) is genetically based at all, or how it evolved.  Yet Haidt blithely pronounces about the evolutionary roots of not just patriotic celebrations of bin Laden’s demise, but of other stuff as well:

This two-layer psychology is the key to understanding religion, warfare, team sports and last week’s celebrations.

This is evolutionary psychology of the most noxious and misleading sort. We have no idea about the evolutionary roots of things like religion.  Are there genes (and evolutionary bases) for being religious, or for tendencies to form groups that believe in the supernatural? We don’t know. Yet Haidt blithely tells us that this is so, and is a “key” element to understanding much human behavior.  And that “collective effervescence” (a term Haidt borrows from Durkheim), is a good thing, a “hive-ish moment”:

This is why I believe that last week’s celebrations were good and healthy. America achieved its goal — bravely and decisively — after 10 painful years. People who love their country sought out one another to share collective effervescence. They stepped out of their petty and partisan selves and became, briefly, just Americans rejoicing together.

This hive-ish moment won’t last long. But in the communal joy of last week, many of us felt, for an instant, that Americans might still be capable of working together to meet threats and challenges far greater than Osama bin Laden.

God bless America!  Let us put aside Haidt’s commission of the naturalistic fallacy: that group behaviors that evolved are by that virtue desirable behaviors.  I want to underscore here how remarkably ignorant we are about the supposed genetic bases of human “altruism”.  But first we must distinguish two notions of altruism that are often confused:

“True” altruism.  Defined biologically, this form of altruism involves individuals making sacrifices that are not repaid.  By “sacrifices,” evolutionists mean “reproductive sacrifices”, that is, you forgo future reproduction through your behavior.  True altruistic behaviors in our species include firemen and policemen risking their lives (and hence future reproduction or care of existing children and relatives) to help strangers, or soldiers throwing themselves on grenades or taking deadly risks for the rest of their squad.

I know of no examples of “true” altruism outside of humans.  Cases reported in animals, like vampire bats regurgitating blood to unrelated individuals, or porpoises propping up a sick pod-mate, could be examples of either evolved reciprocity (“reciprocal altruism”, which is not “true altruism” because donors expect a return for their “altruistic” act, and so don’t really sacrifice anything), or other mutually helpful behaviors.  I talk about these alternatives below

How can “true altruism” evolve if it hurts the genetic prospects of its donors? There is only one way: through a form of group selection.  Although altruistic individuals may be at a disadvantage, groups of them may proliferate relative to groups lacking altruists, for the population sizes of altruist-containing groups could be larger, and they could expand at the expense of other groups.

But this is unlikely.  This whole evolutionary scenario is unstable, for once an altruist-containing group takes over, the proportion of altruists in it will begins to decline by natural selection—after all, altruists have lower reproductive fitness than non-altruists. To maintain this system thus requires that groups reproduce faster than individuals—and they don’t.   I conclude that insofar as humans behave as true altruists, that behavior has no evolutionary/genetic basis per se.

True altruism could, though, represent a cultural expansion of evolved tendencies.  If we have evolved to be helpful to members of small groups in which we used to live (see below), we could, through reason alone, extend that behavior to others even when it confers no reproductive return.  This is the premise of Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle, a book that I much admire. In that sense, true altruism has an evolutionary basis, but is not selected for qua true altruism.  Like playing the piano or building airplanes, it is an epiphenomenon of other evolved traits.

Alternatively, true altruism in humans could be purely cultural, not based on any evolved group behaviors.  Obvious examples are donating to charities (which doesn’t really hurt our reproduction), or helping the homeless.

The fact is that we know very little about the evolutionary basis—if any—of true human altruism.  And so it’s foolish and misleading to make statements about the origin of such behaviors when we have no idea whether they are genetically based, much less about the social conditions of our ancestors that could have affected the evolution of such behaviors.

The form of “altruism” that comes to mind for most people is not “true” altruism but what I call “apparent’ altruism:

“Apparent” altruism.  This is behavior that is seemingly altruistic, in that individuals help others at their own (reproductive) expense, but actually is genetically beneficial to the actor because it actually promotes its survival and reproduction.  Insofar as we humans—or members of other species—do show evolved altruism, I think it’s of this sort.  And apparent altruism can evolve in several well-understood ways:

Kin selection:  Behaviors that “hurt” individuals can actually benefit their genes if those behavior promote the well being of related individuals (this is the concept of an individual having “inclusive fitness”).  This is the basis of parental care, which can be considered “altruistic” in that a parent forgoes reproduction to take care of existing kids. (Human females, for example, are often physically unable to reproduce when they’re breast-feeding babies.)  And it could apply to more distant relatives too.   Some ground squirrels show “alarm calls”: they give off loud calls when a predatory bird is nearby.  That behavior hurts their own reproduction, since it calls the predator’s attention to the calling individual, singling it out and making it more liable to be eaten.  But that behavior benefits the squirrel’s offspring, who are nearby and will respond to the call by diving underground.  It’s been shown that ground squirrels give alarm calls more often when there are relatives nearby.

Much of evolved “altruistic” human behavior could be of this sort, especially if our ancestors lived in small groups of relatives.  Unfortunately, we don’t know much about this.

Reciprocal altruism:  Helping non-relatives could also be beneficial if they remember your kindness and reciprocate.  If the costs and benefits are properly balanced, this behavior could evolve by individual selection.  It requires, however, that individuals remember who helped them and are inclined to help back.  It’s also susceptible to cheaters: individuals who get helped but don’t return the favor. That’s why the evolution of this form of altruism requires small groups of individuals who can recognize and remember each other, enabling them to return favors and punish cheaters.  That is probably the case in some of our primate relatives, like chimps and monkeys, and perhaps in other species.

Cooperation.  “Hive-ish” group behavior that looks altruistic may simply have evolved because you’re better off helping others in a group that going it alone.  That’s probably the evolutionary basis of cooperative hunting, as in wolves and lions.  There’s no problem understanding the evolution of this: any gene that makes you behave cooperatively, if that cooperation makes you better off than not cooperating, will become “fixed” (pervasive) in the population.

Cultural bases.  And, of course, much of our “hive-ishness”, even of the reciprocal or cooperative kind, can, as with the evolution of “true” altruism, be a cultural overlay on our evolved behaviors.

It’s important to emphasize that we have no idea about the genetic basis of human cooperation, and not much more about the sizes, stability, and relatedness of early proto-human groups.  I suspect that, as in chimps, we do have some aspects of our behavior that reflect an evolutionary history in smallish groups.  Our “innate” feelings of morality may stem from evolution acting in early bands of hominins.  And certainly our tendency to favor relatives over nonrelatives must have some roots in our evolution.  But beyond that we’re operating under a veil of ignorance.  We can’t experiment on humans the way we can on other species, and that makes it hard to study both social behavior and the genetic basis of that behavior.

Haidt has no such problems, however.  He simply asserts without proof that our “hive-isheness”, including religion and sports, has an evolutionary basis similar to that of colony behavior in bees and termites.  This is not only foolish, but positively misleading.  When I beef about the excesses of evolutionary psychology, it’s this sort of thing that comes to mind.

I wish there were at least one op-ed editor at the New York Times who knew something about biology.  While there should be no bar on opinions, there should be a bar against unsupported assertions about biology.

h/t: Greg Mayer

66 thoughts on “bin Laden and the evolution of altruism

  1. Compartmentalization. Some nuts are celebrating the killing, and so the pacifists among us disparage the act. But there does exist those who are celebrating in the streets but of course would have preferred he be captured alive.

  2. Very interesting. I favour an ‘observational’ cultural origin for that jingoistic behaviour. We consciously & unconsciously copy other people we admire or like. We behave when young as we think others behave or in a way that is approprite for the particular social group, so while you might swear at a football match, you would not while having tea with the vicar. By the way, like chimps we know now that Gorillas learn ‘culture’ (pre-cursor culture) by observation –

    1. Indeed. While I’m certain the world is better off w/o OBL, my experience (admittedly, mostly posts on my FB feed) w his post-death celebration has been better characterized as “Fuck, yeah! Murica! If you don’t look or talk like me, you better watch out!” than “effervescent.”

  3. Question : In response to “true” Altruism, you say that fireman are examples of people that do things that have no repayment. Where does the psychological role fit it in? For as many people that “run into a burning building” for the sake of helping those in need that are strangers there are just as many people that do it for the rush, for the recognition and other psychological benefits. So does this “override” in a sense, the biological sense of Altruism in regards to furthering the reproductive line or not? and if not, why?

    As far as the celebratory nature of those responding to the death of Bin Laden, being in New York and having lost family in the 9/11 attacks, the feeling was overwhelmingly, almost inescapably, joyous. While I do not agree with it being a reason to grab a beer and shout and party it up St. Patty’s style, I believe that many people who were happy saw Bin Ladens killing as appropriate in comparison to his lack of care for the innocents he killed. It was not the senseless death of an innocent that was being celebrated but the death of one who brought almost insurmountable pain to an entire nation regardless of religion, political lean, age or any polarizing ideology. Maybe, simply an an issue of “group think” for New Yorkers who dealt with 9/11 and the days that followed, this gave at least the semblance of closure.
    post-script – love the blog, loved the book (must re-read more and more till I understand it 100%; getting there)

    1. Yes – a ‘feel-good’ factor even for a secret altruist, must have some part to play? Release of endorphins perhaps?

    2. “…lack of care for the innocents he killed”

      It’s terrorism when they do it to us but not when we do it to them. The U.S. dwarfs Usama when it comes to terrorism. The celebrations were shameful.

      1. My point about innocents was in direct relation to the killing of Osama. The deaths included in 9/11 were not military deaths, they were in every aspect innocents. The attack on Bin Laden was a direct attack on those militants who were in a personal war with us and were not innocent. I do not see the “one mans freedom fighter” argument even remotely working in this example.

        1. I’m not talking about any “one man’s freedom fighter…” argument. I was referring to the U.S. history of state-directed terrorism and illegal wars of aggression and indiscriminate killing of innocents/civilians. We are hypocrites.

          1. Exactly. How many were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq? Much more than in 9/11.
            And yet I would not cheer if some secret commando killed Bush to fulfill some kind of vengeance.

    3. The 9/11 attacks did far more than kill innocents, also. Many people lost their livelihoods because of it due to its significant impact on businesses, and many people were scarred both physically and psychologically by it. When people complain about the victory celebrations that occurred after bin Laden was killed, I can’t help but think that they are disingenuously downplaying the enormity of the 9/11 attacks and the stature of bin Laden in that particular terrorist group.

      On that note, the New York Times has a new story posted about the operation which I think proves that they did intend to capture him if possible though they doubted it would be:

  4. So Haidt is walking down the street one day. He trips and falls and apparently hurts himself badly. If I am standing and watching and just point at him and laugh, that would be a bad thing. But if I am standing with a group of my friends and we all point and laugh and make high fives all around – that would be altruistic.

  5. How could sports ever be considered altruistic? Team members get paid up to tens-of-millions per year. They do nothing thst doesn’t benefit themselves.

  6. I felt happy he was killed, but was not compelled to run into the streets chanting “USA”! I feel excited when I see a plate of delicious food when I am hungry, but I do not hoot, grab the food if it is not mine, or drool. I feel edgy and alert when an imposing male conspecific becomes domineering, but I do not “display” or attack that male.

    I mean, we supposedly live in a fucking CIVILIZATION, right?

  7. “While there should be no bar on opinions, there should be a bar against unsupported assertions about biology.”

    Want to rethink that one in light of the 1A?

  8. Thank you for this post. I knew Haidt was on very shaky ground when he tried to provide such a firm link between altruism and his two-level natural selection. Haidt’s references to natural selection, bogus primatology, Durkheim, and “tribal times” are a diversion from the real issues of contemporary political economy. I’ve written some related comments in my blog-post “Anthropological responsibilities on bin Laden celebrations”:

  9. “True altruistic behaviors in our species include firemen and policemen risking their lives……”

    I disagree with this statement. I don’t believe there is true altruism, even in humans.

    Jonathan Haidt…..I try not to say much because I use my real name, but…..I think he is a good psychologist, I just have so many issues with his stuff. Positive psychology, conservatives are picked on too much, religion is more good than bad, and on and on. Now this, with the “humans aren’t selfish” positivity, argh. Anything to rationalize “my” point of view.

    1. I read Haidt’s Happiness book a few years ago, and found a lot in it I liked, at the time. Just last month we did it for book club, and I was surprised to find how much my opinion of it, and the author, has declined. The “Divinity” chapter, in particular, seems a load of cherry-picking to validate a vague notion of vestigial spirituality, conceived of as being a polar opposite of bodily function. I mean, what about the religions with a tradition of sacred sexuality?

      I’m not a big fan of the term “faitheist” , but if there was ever someone who deserved that title, Haidt is it.

  10. I wonder if Nicholas Wade has also weighed in. He wrote a very crappy (and Templeton-funded, and guided) book making the same mushy claims – religion good for group cohesion therefore it evolved blah blah.

  11. I think the idea of groupish altruism being a “cultural overlay” is just as mushy and misleading as Haidt’s claim that it evolved via multilevel selection. Pointing to culture doesn’t explain anything, for then you have to explain why cultures all around the world spontaneously converged upon the value of altruism, without any “genetic” help. It seems that it is far more extravagant to claim that this cultural convergence came about by chance, when cultures are literally infinite in the number of forms they can take. You might as well say altruism came about by magic.
    I also think Dr. Coyne is a bit preoccupied with genetics. Ethologists routinely make adaptationist claims without appeal to specific genes. Evolutionary psychologists use many different methods to test their claims, from brain-scanning to hunter-gatherer studies to psychological experiments to developmental research to cross-cultural surveys to game theoretical models to psychoendocrinology to primatology. It is time Dr. Coyne stop picking on straw men. His beef is not with evo psych but with adaptationism, for evo psych is based on the logic of adaptationism. If he’d like to pick apart this logic, I’d love to hear it. In the meantime, I would love it if he’d stop attacking a marginalized field that only seeks to broaden our understanding and achieve higher levels of integration between disciplines. (For what it’s worth, I’m not defending Haidt, I’m defending evo psych. I agree that the article was mushy.)

  12. How are firemen and police/soldiers displaying “true” altruism? If I’m not mistaken, their pay is usually very good, not to mention health care and retirement packages on top of it.

    I’m sick to death of our culture’s constant praise of people who are doing a job like anyone else.

    1. Several people apparently haven’t read what I wrote about “true” altruism, which means PAYING A REPRODUCTIVE COST FOR YOUR BEHAVIOR. In that sense firemen and soldiers who fall on grenades ARE behaving altruistically, no matter whether they make millions of dollars in pay. They still run a risk of death for doing what they’re doing.

      Did you read my definition?

      1. Gee, now that it’s in CAPS, I understand…

        But yes, I read it, and I still disagree with it. Assuming the firefighter, etc has already reproduced, the wages and other benefits will go a long way in caring for any offspring left behind. If you had limited it to cases of no offspring, perhaps your argument would be valid.

        1. Fred Mounts wrote:
          How are firemen and police/soldiers displaying “true” altruism? If I’m not mistaken, their pay is usually very good, not to mention health care and retirement packages on top of it. I’m sick to death of our culture’s constant praise of people who are doing a job like anyone else.

          According to the National Fire Protection Association, 71 percent of the 1.1 million firefighters in the United States are unpaid volunteers, so the cushy benefits argument doesn’t hold much water. Volunteer firefighters are not “doing a job like anyone else.”

          1. Then I retract the part of my statement relating to firefighters, and offer thanks for the correction. It’s just one of my pet peeves – I hate the overuse of the word ‘hero’ in American culture. (I’m not saying that Jerry or anyone else was using/implying the word; the altruism thing just got me going a bit!)

      2. I don’t even think it necessarily has to do with pay. It could increase reproductive ability by being labeled a hero, making the world safer for your genes or future genes, etc. I can’t say for fact that there IS or ISN’T true altruism, but I haven’t found any evidence for it yet. There is always some sort of benefit to the self.

        Now if you want to do what Dawkins did in the early part of The Selfish Gene and say that the biological definition stops at the pure behavior with no inferences of psychological or future benefit, then I guess I’ll have to concede.

        As it stands, however, and as a budding social psychologist, I still don’t buy true altruism. I especially don’t buy a “only humans can” statement either.

        1. Adam K. Fetterman wrote:
          I especially don’t buy a “only humans can” statement either.

          The statement from the original post was “I know of no examples of “true” altruism outside of humans.” How you can turn this into “only humans can”is a mystery.

            1. By the way. What IS the punishment for misinterpreting secular texts? Scourging? Burning? Stoning? Crucifixion? Eternal damnation?
              I await my fate……

      3. You asked, “How can, ‘true altruism’ evolve if it hurts the genetic prospects of its donors?”

        I will answer with another question. What makes firemen (and other “heroic” figures) so damn sexy? Could there be a certain amount of sexual selection in play? If risking your life for others results in a greater amount of sexual activity this may offset the risk.

    2. What about the bystander who–seeing someone fall off a subway platform onto the track–jumps down to save them? That seems to me to be ‘true’ altruism.
      Joseph Campbell wrote that altruistic behavior is rooted in the inherent realization that I and thou are one. Thoughts?

  13. Thank you for providing a solid explanation of why Haidt’s article is probably wrong.

    I know of no examples of “true” altruism outside of humans.

    What about Old Yeller fighting the wolf to protect the sister of his best friend, a human (to the extent that such a scenario might happen in real life)? Is that “true” altruism? It’s the closest non-human altruistic action I can think of right now where the protector isn’t related to the thing it is protecting and the thing it is throwing itself at might as well be a grenade.

    1. Good point, but that kind of altruism isn’t “natural” — it’s been artificially selected.

      I suppose, though, that this might be an example of a limited sort of group selection. The dog breeds that show such willingness to defend unrelated creatures (such as herd defending dogs) are more likely to proliferate (at least in those contexts) than breeds that don’t show those traits, even though such traits may be detrimental to the individual.

  14. This is evolutionary psychology of the most noxious and misleading sort.

    Agreed, and the stuff about altruism and eusocial insects made it especially silly. But bin Laden’s killing brought to mind these passages from Pinker’s Blank Slate about two motives, quite plausibly evolutionary adaptations, behind human killing: (1) a sense of justice; (2) exultation of killing. Certainly both these factors are at play in bin Laden’s death. Pinker on both:

    If one is genuinely not bluffing about the threat of punishment, there is no bluff to call. As Oliver Wendell Holmes explained, “If I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was going to have hanged (or electrocuted) I should say, ‘I don’t doubt that your act was inevitable for you but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. You may regard yourself as a soldier dying for your country if you like. But the law must keep its promises.’” This promise-keeping underlies the policy of applying justice “as a matter of principle,” regardless of the immediate costs or even of consistency with common sense. If a death-row inmate attempts suicide, we speed him to the emergency ward, struggle to resuscitate him, give him the best modern medicine to help him recuperate, and kill him. We do it as part of a policy that closes off all possibilities to “cheat justice.” Capital punishment is a vivid illustration of the paradoxical logic of deterrence, but the logic applies to lesser criminal punishments, to personal acts of revenge, and to intangible social penalties like ostracism and scorn. Evolutionary psychologists and game theorists have argued that the deterrence paradox led to the evolution of the emotions that undergird a desire for justice: the implacable need for retribution, the burning feeling that an evil act knocks the universe out of balance and can be canceled only by a commensurate punishment. People who are emotionally driven to retaliate against those who cross them, even at a cost to themselves, are more credible adversaries and less likely to be exploited. Many judicial theorists argue that criminal law is simply a controlled implementation of the human desire for retribution, designed to keep it from escalating into cycles of vendetta.

    When George Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War, he once saw a man running for his life half-dressed, holding up his pants with one hand. “I refrained from shooting at him,” Orwell wrote. “I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists’; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow creature, similar to your self.” … We should not, however, delude ourselves into thinking that the reaction of Orwell (one of the twentieth century’s greatest moral voices) and of the “well-brought-up” Afrikaner is typical. Many intellectuals believe that the majority of soldiers cannot bring themselves to fire their weapons in battle. The claim is incredible on the face of it, given the tens of millions of soldiers who were shot in the wars of the last century. … The belief turns out to be traceable to a single, dubious study of infantrymen in World War II. In follow-up interviews, the men denied having even been asked whether they had fired their weapons, let alone having claimed they hadn’t. Recent surveys of soldiers in battle and of rioters in ethnic massacres find that they often kill with gusto, sometimes in a state they describe as “joy” or “ecstasy.

    In response to your earlier characterization of bin Laden’s killing as “murder“, today’s NYT reports the contingencies behind the operation, which should cause you to reconsider that accusation:

    In revealing additional details about planning for the mission, senior officials also said that two teams of specialists were on standby: One to bury Bin Laden if he was killed, and a second composed of lawyers, interrogators and translators in case he was captured alive. … But the officials acknowledged that the mission always was weighted toward killing, given the possibility that Bin Laden would be armed or wearing an explosive vest.

  15. Has Haidt committed the naturalistic fallacy? I thought that was the formal name for the is/ought problem.

    Would Haidt’s fallacy not be better described as an appeal to nature?

    Apologies for the nitpickery.

    1. Pre-probing posting presents problems.

      Ah. There are two senses in which “naturalistic fallacy” is used, and one is indeed equivalent to an “appeal to nature.”

  16. Although I’m not a neuroscientist, it is my understanding that we come equipped with mirror neurons that activate sympathetically in response to actions carried out on another. Surely this is a clear indicator that such sympathetic firing that stimulates the observer’s limbic system (for lack of a better term) is the biological root for the shared feeling we call empathy.

    It seems to me that empathy understood thus can be considered an inheritable genetic trait and, if my understanding of the increased sex appeal of a compassionate person (of either gender) is any indication, pretty good evidence for its evolutionary development. Firemen calenders also seem to do a brisk business and I know many who are quite attracted to anyone in a uniform who puts their lives at risk for the welfare of others. My armed forces and police friends seem to never want for attracted company.

    The flip side to this seems to also be the case: getting rid of someone who threatens many is usually accompanied by some measure of relief from anxiety… a relief commonly shared by many. We tend to be sexually attracted to those individuals who can provide us with this kind of relief.

    I distrust classifying groups of individuals as entities that behave according to some ‘hive’ mind as Haidt and others seem so willing to assume is true. Although the pattern of social behaviour may be evident to lend support to such a hypothesis, I still doubt a flock or herd or school (or murder) that appears to have discrete boundaries is anything more than many individuals acting according to their individual biologically driven urges. Human altruism in this sense of an engaged but sympathetic limbic system on behalf of another is as much an urge as any other and very much subject to evolutionary benefit on an individual level.

    We may not know why someone sacrifices him- or herself but every report I hear of such heroism (by survivors, of course) is accompanied by the simple excuse, “Anyone would have done what I did.” In other words, people follow their urges to act first and rationalize why later and this tells me that this behaviour like any other is rooted in our biology and not our philosophy; it takes much more effort to stop and think… which isn’t always the wisest (or sexually attractive) course of action.

  17. I just returned Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves” to the library. His contention there is that true altruism might not actually exist, except as some Platonic ideal.

    (The book is primarily an attempt to reconcile determinism with free will. I’m not sure he did all that well in the end, but I give him lots of props for trying.)

    But whatever altruism “is”, celebrating the death of another — even someone as death-worthy as bin Laden — is not an example of any kind of altruism whatsoever. It’s pure and simple a fulfilled revenge fantasy.

    As for myself, I was relieved to know bin Laden was dead, and disconcerted to find out where he had been hiding.

  18. “…2001 Templeton Prize in Positive Psychology…”

    That’s a double whammy in my book. For those who don’t know much about positive psychology, I recommend Barbara Ehrenreich.

  19. Just a minor comment about the possible role of group selection in the evolution of altruism in humans or anything else. Prof. Coyne says:

    “How can “true altruism” evolve if it hurts the genetic prospects of its donors? There is only one way: through a form of group selection. Although altruistic individuals may be at a disadvantage, groups of them may proliferate relative to groups lacking altruists, for the population sizes of altruist-containing groups could be larger, and they could expand at the expense of other groups.

    But this is unlikely. This whole evolutionary scenario is unstable, for once an altruist-containing group takes over, the proportion of altruists in it will begins to decline by natural selection—after all, altruists have lower reproductive fitness than non-altruists. To maintain this system thus requires that groups reproduce faster than individuals—and they don’t. I conclude that insofar as humans behave as true altruists, that behavior has no evolutionary/genetic basis per se.”

    It is not true that groups need to reproduce faster than individuals to make up for the fact that non-altruists have an edge within the groups. It doesn’t even have to be close! There are lots of factors going on in 2-level selection. No one factor, like the rate of individual vs group reproduction, is decisive.

    1. You say ‘No one factor, like the rate of individual vs group reproduction, is decisive’. Since reading your post, I have been wondering what factors there could be in 2-level selection that would offset the effect of a declining proportion of altruists. I owuld welcome further comments or references.

      1. The one I had in mind here is group “fissioning”. This is where a group breaks up into 2 or more pieces, each one becoming a new group. Since it is very unlikely that every piece will have exactly the same ratio of cooperators to defectors as the parent group, some pieces will be more cooperative than the parent group, and some less. As the offspring groups grow and change over time, their ratios of cooperators to defectors will decrease, but the head start some of them got at birth could be enough to offset this trend. If cooperative groups are less likely to die (of extinction) then the surviving offspring groups could be more cooperative than the parent. Later, the offspring groups may fission too, and the process continues. My models show that if the parameters are in reasonable ranges, cooperation can evolve this way. See

        Feel free to continue this conversation here (or elsewhere) if you’re interested.

        1. Many thanks for your helpful response to my query and the reference to your paper. My mathematics is not strong enough to enable me to follow the details of the modelling, but you write in a way that mskes the main ideas clear enough for non-specialists to grasp.

  20. Sorry to have to appear obtuse here, but what I still need somebody to explain to me is why kin selection and haplodiploidy are always wheeled out as the mechanisms and requirements, respectively, for the evolution of eusociality, when the example of termites alone shows that this is, at a minimum, not a sufficient explanation for all cases of eusociality.

    Similarly, are the eusocial wood-boring beetles, sponge-inhabiting crustaceans, gall-inhabiting thrips, and naked mole rats all haplodiploid?

    1. Yes, kin selection is required for eusociality. There are no examples of eusocial species that are not comprised of family groups. Haplodiploidy is another story, and no, it is not required for eusociality, though I don’t think anyone has ever argued that it was. And, by the way, thrips are haplodiploid

      1. Didn’t know that about the thrips, thanks. But yes, I expressed myself in a very muddled way; of course kin selection is necessary, but what I meant is that haplodiploidy is indeed very often presented as the explanation for why eusociality evolves, and that just bugs me.

  21. Can’t you argue that even the ultimate act of altruism, say, sacrificing your life for a stranger, can be done for the feel-good factor? As humans, we can deduce that we would be praised for it had we survived, and will be praised in eulogies after death, and get endorphins (or whatever) from that anticipated, hypothetical praise?

    1. And the evolutionary value of that may be that the survival of the meme “S/he was a great, self-sacrificing person” is preferred to the survival of one’s genes?

      1. Such a meme has no self-recursive survival value, unlike, say, “Passing on this chain letter brings you good luck.” Still, some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules…

  22. This is a very interesting post. One thing that I wonder about true altruism is whether, in many cases, the individuals who are risking their lives really believe that they will die. Throwing yourself on a grenade would be pretty obvious, I guess, but other examples, such as rushing into a burning building to save someone seem less obvious. I think that people sometimes feel invincible (“It won’t happen to me”). Is altruism only true if people know for certain they are making a sacrifice (i.e., will die as a result of the risk)?

    1. Do we ever completely shake off the teenage belief that we are immortal? (And isn’t belief in an afterlife an attempt to rationalise that belief?)

  23. I don’t believe in altruism. A person saving a stranger, or even a secret donor gets some sort of rush from their actions.
    As for animals outside humans that act in true altruism manner, how about a dog that may lunge at someone trying to hurt one of its human family members?
    Again, the dog is getting a rush by doing this, so I’m calling it perceived altruism, the same way I label a soldier, fireman, or secret donor.

    1. What Dr. Coyne said in comments, evolution isn’t about feeling good, it’s about reproducing. Unless you are proposing what the Ethicists call an “error theory”? That altruists are simply making a mistake?

  24. This does seem to be a counter- to the standard claim that Templeton Prizes are given to those who are apologists for religion.

    Let’s say Haidt’s work can (non-exhaustively) been split between his work on morality (‘The emotional dog and it’s rational tail’), politics (much of which is similar to Lakoff’s) and happiness.

    The happiness stuff, while not overtly religious, is obviously also compatible with a religious world view. The politics work, if you squint, suggests that liberals (as opposed to mostly-religious conservatives) are sort of values-retarded as they only care about 2 out the 5 values that Haidt identifies (of course Haidt’s work, even if you agree with it, doesn’t have to be read this way; there’s nothing overtly prescriptive about it). But the morality work, if his account is true, suggests that the kind of rationalism necessary for any sort of traditional religious ethics (deontological ethics) is demonstrably false and just a trick our rationalising mind is playing on itself. Which is a bit curious really.

    You wouldn’t expect a religiously proselytizing institution to reward someone who says: people need a spiritual dimension to their lives to be happy, conservatives and liberals conceive of the world in different ways and communicate differently about it and religious ethics is all nonsense.

  25. What Haidt calls “hive-ish” tendencies, Aldous Huxley called “herd poison”. I guess the difference depends on whether you’re a member of the mob, or a target.

  26. “Defined biologically, this form of altruism involves individuals making sacrifices that are not repaid. By “sacrifices,” evolutionists mean “reproductive sacrifices”, that is, you forgo future reproduction through your behavior.”

    Right. So an infertile person who murders all their relatives in order to inherit their money is showing “true altruism”. Tell it to the judge.

    A better term is “genetic altruism”, to distinguish it from what the word means in everyday language.

  27. Incest taboo is something observed in adopted children towards their adoptive families, and far less so towards their biological relatives whom they meet as adults. It has an obvious and well-supported evolutionary advantage because of genetics, but that doesn’t mean the behavior is triggered by genetic factors. Oedipus had no qualms about bedding his mother because he didn’t think of her as his mother.
    You say “I know of no examples of ‘true’ altruism outside of humans.”
    Dogs are well-known for their willingness to brave all kinds of mortal perils to benefit members of other species. Granted, dogs have been selected by humans for this character trait, so they’re a special case. Still, the behavior seems to be triggered more by being part of the learned in-group than by being genetically related. That non-domesticated animal species can be kept as pets at all hints that group instinct is triggered socially.

    I’d also point out that what we call civilization is relatively recent. While it’s true we don’t know how our ancestors lived, we know they didn’t have the kinds of transportation we have, and populations from the same geographical area did tend to resemble one another. I think it’s safe to say that living close to close relatives was the norm for most of the animal kingdom since forever until a few thousand years ago. Isn’t it?

  28. Cuckoo foster parents exhibit “true altruism” – as it is defined on this page. Through their own behaviour, they take a reproductive hit for a non relative with no hope of it being repaid. So evidently this form of “true altruism” is not confined to humans.

      1. The supplied definition of “true altruism” says that you need to “forgo future reproduction through your behavior”. A foster parent feeding a cuckoo chick is executing their own behaviour – and paying the associated costs volutarily. That is not so with the mosquito – so “no” – that doesn’t fit the supplied definition.

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