From dark hearts comes the kindness of mankind

January 22, 2013, Princeton University

The kindness of mankind most likely developed from our more sinister and self-serving tendencies, according to Princeton University and University of Arizona research that suggests society's rules against selfishness are rooted in the very exploitation they condemn.

The report in the journal Evolution proposes that altruism—society's protection of resources and the collective good by punishing "cheaters"—did not develop as a reaction to avarice. Instead, communal disavowal of greed originated when competing selfish individuals sought to control and cancel out one another. Over time, the direct efforts of the dominant fat cats to contain a few competitors evolved into a community-wide desire to guard its own well-being.

The study authors propose that a system of greed dominating greed was simply easier for our to manage. In this way, the work challenges dominant theories that selfish and altruistic social arrangements formed independently—instead the two structures stand as evolutionary phases of group interaction, the researchers write.

Second author Andrew Gallup, a former Princeton postdoctoral researcher in ecology and evolutionary biology now a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Bard College, worked with first author Omar Eldakar, a former Arizona postdoctoral fellow now a visiting assistant professor of biology at Oberlin College, and William Driscoll, an ecology and doctoral student at Arizona.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers constructed a that gauged how a community withstands a system built on altruistic punishment, or selfish-on-selfish punishment. The authors found that altruism demands a lot of initial expenditure for the group—in terms of communal time, resources and risk of reprisal from the punished—as well as advanced levels of cognition and cooperation.

On the other hand, a construct in which a few profligate players keep like-minded individuals in check involves only those members of the community—everyone else can passively enjoy the benefits of fewer people taking more than their share. At the same time, the reigning individuals enjoy uncontested spoils and, in some cases, reverence.

Social orders maintained by those who bend the rules play out in nature and human history, the authors note: Tree wasps that police hives to make sure that no member other than the queen lays eggs will often lay illicit eggs themselves. Cancer cells will prevent other tumors from forming. Medieval knights would pillage the same civilians they readily defended from invaders, while neighborhoods ruled by the Italian Mafia traditionally had the lowest levels of crime.

What comes from these arrangements, the researchers conclude, is a sense of order and equality that the group eventually takes upon itself to enforce, thus giving rise to .

Explore further: Natural selection makes some relatives selfish, others altruistic

More information: The paper, "When Hawks Give Rise To Doves: The Evolution and Transition of Enforcement Strategies," was published online Jan. 11 by the journal Evolution.

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1 / 5 (2) Jan 24, 2013
A sadly typical cart before the invention of the wheel problem exists in this otherwise important work. Altruism has to exist before methods to exploit it can evolve, and altruism has to exist for social groups, as opposed to random collections of individuals such as herds, to exist. We have to recognize that there are different kinds of selfish, there is simple selfish which exists in the absence of any altruism, and there is exploitative selfish which is a strategy possible only because altruism exists. It is highly unlikely that simple selfish evolved a strategy to exploit a behavior that it would create in others. And yet they are on the right track, at least in the neighborhood of understanding what happened in my opinion.
Altruists represent a fitness limiting resource for selfish. This is why groups of altruists are not simply overrun by selfish as is often assumed should be the case. Selfish act to monopolize the exploitation of the group of altruists.
1 / 5 (2) Jan 24, 2013
Altruists also act to uncover and rid themselves of selfish, of their own accord, but they also can be exploited by selfish to rid the selfish of other selfish competitors. In humans this process is known as "politics." Now, deception is clearly important here, and it helps selfish to look as if they are altruists if they are acting against other selfish, so there is a dual reward. Remove competition, enhance quality of disguise. Interestingly, work on parasites shows that low levels of virulence evolve in situations of multiple poorly related co-infecting agents, which is basically what you have in a group of humans with selfish in their midst. This leads me to expect to find groups comprised of altruists and mostly low virulence selfish who help to limit total numbers of selfish, and who also typically believe themselves to be altruists, due to self-deception being the best cover possible.

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