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