Rethinking the roots of altruism

Jan 13, 2014 by Peter Reuell
Harvard Professor Martin Nowak (left) and Benjamin Allen, an assistant professor at Emmanuel College, along with Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus E.O. Wilson, have discovered that the theory of inclusive fitness is mathematically flawed. Credit: Kris Snibbe

For decades, researchers working to understand how altruistic behavior evolved have relied on a concept known as inclusive fitness, which holds that organisms receive an evolutionary benefit—and are able to pass on their genes—through cooperative behavior.

Now Harvard scientists say the theory is mathematically flawed and unnecessarily complicates the story of altruism's evolution.

In a new study, Martin Nowak, a professor of mathematics and of biology, E.O. Wilson, the Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus, and Benjamin Allen, a research associate in mathematical biology and an assistant professor at Emmanuel College, find that not only is inclusive fitness impossible to calculate in most cases, but also that it often leads to incorrect conclusions. The research is described in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Our main goal is to develop a rigorous mathematical theory of evolution," Nowak said. "Inclusive fitness is an antiquated concept. Its flaws and limitations are not understood by the majority of people who use it. Once these limitations are clear, the door is open for a meaningful interaction between empiricists and theoreticians working in this area of sociobiology to construct new models and ask precise questions."

A classic example of altruism, Nowak said, would be one animal opting to forgo reproduction to help care for a sibling's offspring. Because of that assistance, the sibling may eventually have more offspring than otherwise. The problem for proponents of inclusive fitness, Nowak said, is how to calculate the benefit for the sibling and the cost for the altruist.

"There are two ways you can pass on your genes," Nowak explained. "You can have your own children, or you can help your sibling reproduce. Once we have this insight, the question is how to make it precise?

"One approach is to introduce a virtual quantity, which is called inclusive fitness, but the problem is that this quantity can almost never be calculated or measured," Nowak said. "For most evolutionary processes, inclusive fitness does not exist."

Though it had been accepted for nearly half a century, the first seeds of doubt about the theory were sown several years ago when Nowak, Wilson, and Corina Tarnita (now at Princeton University) published a paper in Nature showing that the math behind inclusive fitness did not work even in simple cases.

In response, proponents of the theory turned to a mathematical regression method to uphold the view that inclusive fitness can always be calculated.

"The regression method is a curiously backwards approach," Allen said. "It generates a just-so story, which is often wrong, for an outcome that is already known."

To show the ineffectiveness of the technique, Allen and his co-authors produced three models in which the regression method yielded results that were clearly wrong. For example, a nurse who helps the weakest is misinterpreted in this approach as a spiteful bully, and a jealous individual who attacks the strongest is mistaken for an altruist.

One of the main reasons why inclusive fitness theory does not work, Nowak said, is that it addresses the problem at the wrong level.

"It's asking the question at the level of the individual … and in most cases it's impossible to resolve it at that level," he said. "If you look at an ant colony, you cannot say what the inclusive fitness is for a particular worker or a particular soldier, but if you have two gene variants, you can calculate which one will be passed on under what circumstances, and that analysis is done without ever having to calculate inclusive fitness.

"Inclusive fitness is like the complex system of epicycles devised by Ptolemy to support the idea of an Earth-centric universe," he continued. "The need for such complexity disappears when you look at the problem from the correct perspective—in our case, the perspective of the gene. On the level of genes there is no inclusive fitness."

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Returners
1 / 5 (3) Jan 13, 2014
"The need for such complexity disappears when you look at the problem from the correct perspective—in our case, the perspective of the gene. On the level of genes there is no inclusive fitness."


You're thinking about this the wrong way. You believe it's all about DNA or a specific gene, but if that were the case, you'd find a shared "altruism/goodness" gene in almost all types of animals, which you could remove by GM and then observe the animals being selfish/evil/non-altruistic.

All animals plus humans have a brain which we know they use for problem solving to some degree. Animals can conceptualize, we this because a predator, such as a spider, can plan a route in 3-d between itself and it's prey, climb the route, and make an attack. That's a plan, a conceptualization. Though spiders are not very altruistic, the point is even something that small can think of things beyond a direct route to a goal.

cont...
Returners
1 / 5 (3) Jan 13, 2014
For that reason, we should view the act of solving other's problems, even when one's self has no obvious benefit, as an emergence of intelligence, a property beyond mere DNA.

A human might run into a burning building to rescue a child. I see no reason to believe that is a mere "Genetic response," but rather a response based on reason, and the "Golden Rule" concept, which is to say, "If I were trapped in a burning building I'd want someone to try to rescue me.

If there were no evil, you would not need codes of laws, and punishments for breaking the law. Even with those threats, people do the evil thing anyway. in fact, crime statistics showed what, nearly half of males were arrested at least once by age 23.

So I find good and evil behavior to be a property of intelligence and free will. Evil is also a property of intelligence, after all, when evil people perform their acts, it is often pre-planned, intentional, even complex; not something you'd expect from a mere genetic response.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (5) Jan 13, 2014
Altruism is a fantasy.
There is always an element of self-interest (NOT selfish, or 'greed') involved in an individual's choice to act in an altruistic way (as defined in the article).
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 13, 2014
Altruism in humans is a fundamental component of the tribal dynamic.

"HUMAN EVOLUTION AND THE ORIGIN OF WAR: A DARWINIAN HERITAGE
by J.M.G. van der Dennen
Abstract
Darwin (1871) considered the possibility of (violent) intergroup competition in (early) hominid/human evolution in his tentative explanation of the evolution of morality and other specifically human qualities:
"There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection."
A human might run into a burning building to rescue a child.
The tribal dynamic explains this as well as why humans are also apt to herd members of an opposing religion into their church and set it on fire, as in the Rwanda/Burundi genocides or the 30 years war.
Returners
not rated yet Jan 13, 2014
Altruism is a fantasy.
There is always an element of self-interest (NOT selfish, or 'greed') involved in an individual's choice to act in an altruistic way (as defined in the article).


For the most part, i would agree, however there are exceptions. Running into a burning building to save somebody, especially a stranger, would be a huge exception.

Also, what would be "Selfish" about the parable of the "Good Samaritan," who not only paid for the injured man's medical treatment and lodging, but also promised to pay any additional costs when he returned.

Now that may have been "just a parable" to teach people the ideal, yet we know stuff like that does happen in the real world, and I don't think you could claim that is selfish. I can't really think of what selfish motive such a "Good Samaritan" would have.

There are other types of altruism. ie The soldier jumps on a hand grenade, absorbing most of the blast and shrapnel, sacrificing his life to save the entire squad or platoon.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 13, 2014
"As regards humans, Darwin stated that "the confinement of sympathy to the same tribe" must have been the rule. This was for him one of the chief causes of the low morality of the savages. "Primeval man", he argued, "regarded actions as good or bad solely as they obviously affected the welfare of the tribe, not of the species". Among the living tribal peoples, he added, "the virtues are practised almost exclusively in relation to the men of the same tribe" and the corresponding vices "are not regarded as crimes" if practised on other tribes." (Darwin, 1871)

-Religion exploits the tribal dynamic - internal altruism in conjunction with external animosity - by extending the tribal identity over ever larger and disparate peoples, for the purpose of conquest and consolidation.

The religions which were most efficient at this are the ones which we are left with. Their efficiency is also a result of group selection, as well as a process of conscious refinement by the People who created them.
Returners
1 / 5 (1) Jan 13, 2014
The tribal dynamic explains this as well as why humans are also apt to herd members of an opposing religion into their church and set it on fire, as in the Rwanda/Burundi genocides or the 30 years war.


Doesn't explain the Good Samaritan, as he was from an opposing religion and an opposing nationality, and helped the man anyway, while the priest and lawyer would not help the guy of his own race, religion, and nationality.

We know this behavior happens in the real world, though not always to that extreme. There is another word for this, which we call "Love," being "Agape" rather than "Eros."

Agape is clearly beyond any "Tribal instinct" explanation, as is the "Charity" (1 Corinthians 13,) described by Paul in the Bible, by definition it is not selfish, nor tribal. Paul goes so far as to claim that it's possible for a person to give their body to be burned and give all their goods to the poor, and not "really" have this "charity" ... cont...
Returners
1 / 5 (1) Jan 13, 2014
...now as proof of the "Charity" example, or rather the lack thereof yet doing "good" things (1 Cor. 13:3,) can happen in the real world when people do "Good" things for selfish reasons, such as donating money to a organization to make a chandelier or a memorial, and of course the donee gets their name and fame on a plaque. Without knowing their mind, you can't say whether they do it for true "Charity" or whether they are doing it for to be seen or for self-righteousness, which is also selfishness.

I don't see these behaviors being explained by a mere gene.

If you want to see an example of complex behavior with no real genetic source, google "John Conway 'Life' Java Applet."

Once you get the applet, put in random starting shapes and watch the "Gliders" which may be produced by some of them. you can start with totally different conditions and still get "gliders" and other "blinkers" and "oscillators".

Behavior is far beyond mere chemistry or genetics.
ryggesogn2
2 / 5 (4) Jan 13, 2014
Also, what would be "Selfish" about the parable of the "Good Samaritan," who not only paid for the injured man's medical treatment and lodging, but also promised to pay any additional costs when he returned.


If the good Samaritan felt better after the act, it wasn't altruistic.
If NOT risking one's life to save a another would make you feel really bad for the rest of your life, taking the risk is not altruistic.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 13, 2014
Doesn't explain the Good Samaritan, as he was from an opposing religion and an opposing nationality, and helped the man anyway
It explains the mission of your book, to overcome the natural animosity among tribes and unite them under one religion. This only shifts this animosity toward a much larger corresponding religion.

Internal altruism:
"16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world THROUGH HIM.

External animosity:
18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands CONDEMNED already because they have not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were EVIL.

-And weve witnessed this dynamic at work throughout history.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 13, 2014
Doesn't explain the Good Samaritan, as he was from an opposing religion and an opposing nationality
Samaritans were jews.
"Charity" (1 Corinthians 13,) described by Paul in the Bible
Charity is a mistranslation of love. Another imperfection.

Only believers can be good. This message is repeated in 1cor.

"14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit."

-These religions could not exist without this fundamental understanding that unbelievers as a group, as a category, are evil. We understand this today as a particularly base form of bigotry.

"...violent expressions of a political sphere dominated by contentions that Hutu and Tutsi were separate and opposed racial categories. This, too, is one of the legacies of the Catholic missionary, whose schools and pulpits for decades kept up a drumbeat of false race theories"
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 13, 2014
"Fifteen years ago, tens of thousands of Catholics were hacked to death inside churches. Sometimes priests and nuns led the slaughter. Sometimes they did nothing while it progressed. The incidents were not isolated. Nyamata, Ntarama, Nyarubuye, Cyahinda, Nyange, and Saint Famille were just a few of the churches that were sites of massacres.

"In April 1994, Seromba helped lure over 2,000 desperate men, women and children to his church, where they expected safety. But their shepherd turned out to be their hunter.

"One of the refugees asked: "Father, can't you pray for us?" Seromba replied: "Is the God of the Tutsis still alive?" Later, he would order a bulldozer to push down the church walls on those inside and then urge militias to invade the building and finish off the survivors."
Returners
1 / 5 (1) Jan 13, 2014
-These religions could not exist without this fundamental understanding that unbelievers as a group, as a category, are evil. We understand this today as a particularly base form of bigotry.


You misunderstand. At least in terms of doctrine there is a difference between what Christians believe and what you have said.

The point of the needed salvation is not that "unbelievers are evil." The point is everyone is evil, and as a result needs salvation. This is what Paul means when he says, "Christ died for sinners, of whom I am chief(greatest)."

Salvation alone doesn't inherently change a person from being evil. What it does is represent the forgiveness of God through faith, as well as make believers aware of these issues. If you study the story of Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible, most of his story is told from the perspective of his then pagan mind, but at the end he expresses a believe in Jehovah/Yaweh which is absolute and in opposition to his former beliefs and lifestyle.
Returners
not rated yet Jan 13, 2014
Most people probably have the self-conscious attitude that they are a "good" person. If you were talking about subjectively, or comparatively, they might even be correct. However, if you were talking about absolutes, they'd be wrong.

Observe:

Whether believer or not, you can probably get almost everyone to agree that stealing is inherently wrong (with a few needful exceptions,) yet thieves are a dime a dozen; hotel towels go missing, people rob the till at work. Stealing a few dollars to taking a misplaced piece of jewelry and pretending not to know what happened, to armed robbery and professional thievery, etc, but if you ask whether they are a "good" person they will almost all say "yes".

You can do the same thing with drugs, alcohol, assault, etc. "Well yes I'm a good person," they say, but if they were really "good," by their own definition of "good" they would not have done that. The term we use is "hypocrisy," but the phenomenon pervades and perverts much deeper than that...
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 13, 2014
You misunderstand. At least in terms of doctrine there is a difference between what Christians believe and what you have said
No, there is a difference between what xians and indeed all religionists believe, and what they do.

"Don't associate with non-Christians. Don't receive them into your house or even exchange greeting with them." 2 John 1:10

"Shun those who disagree with your religious views." Romans 16:17

"Whoever denies "that Jesus is the Christ" is a liar and an anti-Christ." 1 John 2:22

"Christians are "of God;" everyone else is wicked." 1 John 5:19

"The non-Christian is "a deceiver and an anti-Christ"" 2 John 1:7

"Anyone who doesn't share Paul's beliefs has "an evil heart."" Hebrews 3:12

"A Christian can not be accused of any wrongdoing." Romans 8:33

-You IGNORE this aspect until it becomes time to implement it. And then you might realize that it is the basis for your religion. US VS THEM.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 13, 2014
Whether believer or not, you can probably get almost everyone to agree that stealing is inherently wrong
Stealing from the enemy is a virtue. Joshua stole the land from countless canaanites and took their lives as well.
The point of the needed salvation is not that "unbelievers are evil."
But thats what the book SAYS. And thats what xians ACT upon when the situation calls for it. WITHOUT FAIL. Your pleasantries about peace and love only seek to disguise this. All religions contain such holier-than-thou deception.

do the same thing with drugs
Queen victoria, head of the church of england, fought 2 wars to maintain opium trade and missionary work in china.

"the opium trade was to be regulated by the Chinese authorities. Kowloon, on the mainland opposite Hong Kong Island, was surrendered to the British. Permission was granted for foreigners (including Protestant and Catholic missionaries) to travel throughout the country"

-But religion itself is an opiate yes?
Protoplasmix
5 / 5 (2) Jan 13, 2014
I think the work is insightful because of the skilled and more proper use of mathematics.
---
Altruism is a fantasy

Wrong, it's a term describing observed behavior. Note that in emergency situations, altruistic behavior happens without much conscious effort:
1) When heroes (who survived) are interviewed, they by and large state that they performed the act of heroism without giving it much thought. Evidently, the only conscious evaluation is "to do (or not do) the right thing," which means it's a habitual behavior, simply based on beliefs.
2) When conscious thought does play a more significant role, as when many bystanders are present, the result known as the 'bystander effect' may occur—not one hero in the crowd.

So trying to spin altruism as selfish is incredibly demeaning to those heroes who did not survive, whether on a battlefield or in a burning building. But it will not likely disparage those who strive always to do the right thing—unsung heroes (and altruists), all.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (4) Jan 13, 2014
means it's a habitual behavior

What made that behavior habitual?
Why would anyone learn to do the 'right thing' and make it habitual?
That doesn't make it altruistic, but cultural training to do the right thing because it is believed to be in your self-interest in the long run. "Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you."
Real altruism might be BHO promoting the repeal of Obamacare even though he still believes in the plan and will suffer politically and be even more vehemently ridiculed.
RobertKarlStonjek
1 / 5 (1) Jan 13, 2014
"...find that not only is inclusive fitness impossible to calculate in most cases, but also that it often leads to incorrect conclusions."

If it is impossible to calculate then you can not know the conclusions. You can't have it both ways.

Changing models because one is 'impossible to calculate' is identical, in logic, to chicken little deciding on the easy to calculate 'sky falling model' because General Relativity Math is too difficult.

It is this kind of attitude which invites (justified) derision from physical sciences. Let's hope that quote was due to journalistic ignorance and was not said or implied by actual researchers...

On the age of the model: Nowak said. "Inclusive fitness is an antiquated concept." The age of the model is totally, utterly and completely irrelevant. Or should Natural Selection be tossed out because it is antiquated? Indeed, it is three times older than the Inclusive Fitness model.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 13, 2014
That doesn't make it altruistic, but cultural training to do the right thing because it is believed to be in your self-interest in the long run.
Sorry it's not cultural. Group selection is biological. A tribe whose members trust each other would have more to fight for and would thus prevail over those who didn't.

In other words we are naturally altruistic towards fellow tribal members Your 'culture' perverts the biological motivation for animosity toward outsiders and applies it to its own enemies, those being the other religions. Once they're conquered your church favors them with altruism - if they convert.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 13, 2014
Why would anyone learn to do the 'right thing' and make it habitual?
Why would anyone learn that slavery is a bad thing? Your 'culture' condones it. It's in your book.

It was only when your 'culture ' began to lose its grip on society, that people began to respond to their natural revulsion of slavery.

It was only when society became able to throw off the influence of the church that people could start to lose the perception of us vs them, and begin to consider all of humanity as a single tribe, with altruism for all and animosity toward none.
nowhere
not rated yet Jan 14, 2014
The point is everyone is evil, and as a result needs salvation.

Since evolution and survival of the fittest has essentially engineered us to be evil/selfish, is it not then hypocritical for a God who made us via such a method to then expect us to express good/altruistic traits? He has essential 'stacked the deck' in a most devious way.

This is what Paul means when he says, "Christ died for sinners, of whom I am chief(greatest)."

I presume Christ's death for sinners isn't literal, since it isn't possible to absolve sinners by pushing an innocent third party.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jan 14, 2014
On the age of the model: Nowak said. "Inclusive fitness is an antiquated concept." The age of the model is totally, utterly and completely irrelevant.

Antiquated, here, just means that it is based on old assumptions that don't hold true. (which suggests that inclusive fitness cannot be supported given latest research results).

"It's asking the question at the level of the individual … and in most cases it's impossible to resolve it at that level,"

This, I feel, is a valid criticism, as the question should be asked at the breeding individual's level
...which, in the case of an ant colonoy, is the queen and workers as a whole on the one hand and the individual, fertile males on the other; or in the case of human society even non-breeding members that have a gene relation to still breeding members (e.g. grandparents aiding their children/grandchildren or a nurse helping a baby of the same species)
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (2) Jan 14, 2014
Since evolution and survival of the fittest has essentially engineered us to be evil/selfish,

No it has not.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2014
Since evolution and survival of the fittest has essentially engineered us to be evil/selfish, is it not then hypocritical for a God who made us via such a method to then expect us to express good/altruistic traits?
This is a lie told by religions to convince us that we need their particular god for salvation. Group selection has selected us for altruism within the group as well as animosity toward outsiders. Both are moral in the context.
nowhere
1 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2014
Since evolution and survival of the fittest has essentially engineered us to be evil/selfish,

No it has not.

Sure it has. Consider that most all actions that coffer a reproduction advantage are negative.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2014
Since evolution and survival of the fittest has essentially engineered us to be evil/selfish,

No it has not.

Sure it has. Consider that most all actions that coffer a reproduction advantage are negative.
No theyre not.

Group Selection
"Many species have a social structure in which individuals form groups and interaction among members within each group is much more frequent than interaction of individuals across groups. When selection for a biological trait, often altruism, in such populations depends on the difference between groups rather than individual differences within a group, it is described as "group selection" in evolutionary biology."

"...a behavior may spread in a population because of the benefits they bestow on groups even though they cause the individuals who exhibit this behavior sacrifice fitness by aiding the group."
http://en.wikiped...election

-Human development has been primarily driven by group select
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (2) Jan 14, 2014
Since evolution and survival of the fittest has essentially engineered us to be evil/selfish,

No it has not.

Sure it has. Consider that most all actions that coffer a reproduction advantage are negative.


And those actions are?
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (2) Jan 14, 2014
""True altruism...paying a cost to help another individual and never ever receiving any kind of benefit, is not very common," Stevens says. "It wouldn't make much sense biologically for that to happen.""
"More commonly, when an animal assists another, there is a hidden reward for the helper, says Nigel Barber, PhD, a Maine-based psychologist and author of "Kindness in a Cruel World" "
http://www.apa.or...ism.aspx
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2014
"Heinrich's helpful ravens are now a classic example of animal altruism, says Jeff Stevens"

-Gulls do this as well. Feed a lone gull and it will start screamimg for the rest of them. Their safety is in numbers, just as ours is, and they know that supporting the group can take precedence over the individual.

Proto-humans were puny creatures in the jungle. Those who were able to cooperate in hunting and defending themselves were the ones to survive. And so tribalism was born.

And once tribes began hunting the animals which were hunting them, their numbers exploded and the next tribe over became the principal enemy of man.

Tribal warfare is what forced our brains to grow. Hunting animals is easy. Hunting humans who are in turn hunting you is hard. Those tribes that werent quite as good at it were overrun, the males were killed, and the females incorporated. Mankind was bred for communicating, scheming, remembering, anticipating, cooperating, and weapons making in this manner.