In How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying Too) (Regnery, 2011) , David P. Goldman (blogger “Spengler”), dismisses the Darwinian account of altruism as follows:
Plainly, societies cannot exist without altruism. In the extreme case they could not defend themselves against external threats unless some of their members were willing to die in order to preserve their society. Richard Dawkins and other self-styled New Atheists postulate that humankind evolved a genetic predisposition to altruism. This assertion is something of a flying spaghetti monster. Among all American ethnic groups, Jews share the most consistent gene pool – as studies have established beyond question – the result of two thousand years of marrying within the same community. Yet secular Jews show the least altruism – at least in the form of willingness to raise children – of any group of Americans, while religious Jews show one of the highest degrees of altruism by the same measure. A religious explanation of altruism, not a genetic one, fits the facts. (Pp. 195-96)
11 Replies to “He said it: Why Richard Dawkins is certainly wrong about altruism”
What a ridiculous argument. Secular Jews have fewer children than religious Jews, therefore altruism didn’t evolve?
News, do you vet any of these stories before posting them? Does this argument make any sense at all to you?
Thank you for your post. Just out of curiosity, how would you measure altruism on a scientific basis? I have to say that this is the first time that I’ve seen “number of children” proposed as a metric, but when adjustments are made for income level between different groups, it may not be such a bad metric after all – although to be fair, one can imagine someone having a big family for purely selfish reasons (e.g. to spread one’s genes, or to ensure that one will be well looked after in old age, or to make one’s family more influential, in a small town). Do you have a better metric in mind, Elizabeth?
One could propose monetary measures for altruism (e.g. the amount of money given to charitable causes per year), but then definitional problems arise. For instance, does giving to one’s church count as as giving to a charitable cause? (Some of the money will probably come back to you, after all.) What about giving to one’s almer mater, which I believe is a common American custom, even for middle-class people? (I don’t think most Australians and British would even think of doing such a thing, unless they became millionaires.) Or what about people who can’t afford to give any money, but who give their time instead? And again, what kind of activities count? Does giving free reading lessons to children with learning difficulties count as altruism? I suppose so. What about joining the PTA? What about getting elected President? Or does that depend on whether one sought the position? And what about serving on one’s local council?
Good question, vjtorley. I don’t know of any validated measure, but I would have thought that number of children was a very poor, and very confounded proxy, for the reasons you mention. Amount of charitable giving relative to income might be better, but again, very confounded with other motivations.
And of course before you devise a measure of anything, you need to consider the construct itself and its validity. There is some evidence, I think, that “happiness” is correlated with measures of altruism, but I don’t know the measures used. I’ll see if I can find out. As I recall, it was something like time spent engaged in volunteer activities to help other people.
Something like that would seem to me to be a better proxy – volunteering to do something you think will help others is probably a pretty good definition of altruism.
By no measure whatsoever could having children be deemed altruistic. It is simply passing on your genes. No altruism involved.
It is by the measure of women who died in childbirth.
EL, I think the general idea behind the UD “news” is simply to fling as much mud as possible and as often as possible in the general direction of Darwinism, with the thought that some of it is bound to stick (at least in the mind of the reader).
You may even notice that fairly often the underlying article isn’t even critical of standard evolutionary theory but the news headline is phrased in such a way as to make it appear so. For example, the other day there was reference to a book review by Henry Gee; neither the book nor the review was critical of evolution but you’d never know it from the headline:
“Henry Gee in Nature: ‘We know that, as a depiction of evolution, this line-up is tosh. Yet we cling to it.'”
A casual glance at this without delving into the review itself might simply register “evolution = tosh” in the reader’s mind, and I think that is exactly the purpose of the post.
Well, if so, the more likely result is that the reader will register “ID = tosh”.
Why post bad arguments if you have good ones?
NormO, you took the words out of my mouth. I must admit that it does seem to me that the goal of this web site is to go for quantity rather than quality. And how many of the pieces here are really honestly connected to ID? But if the “UD Newsroom” can post 9-10 pieces a day it can create the illusion that ID is a vital discipline with constant breaking news. I agree too that the labels on the packages rarely match what’s inside the package. But “News” is certainly a creative writer and one must at least admire the hyperbole.
It also cracks me up that “News” tries to give the illusion that there is a whole staff of science writers furiously generating all the stuff in some smoke-laden room at ID headquarters, when we know it’s just the work of one person. But when it comes down to quality in-depth science writing, this really isn’t the place to look.
this paper was interesting from Beer Sheva, Israel
“We find that religious institutions generate significantly higher levels of altruism and trust than comparable non-religious institutions…”
Which has absolutely nothing to do with the ridiculous argument made in the piece referenced in the OP.
Nor with the question as to whether altruism evolved.
As an Orthodox Jew who grew up in a secular Jewish family/community, I would like to offer the following anecdotal thoughts.
1) Having more kids is not always easy – in comes with financial and other difficulties [it’s worth it, kids are a blessing, but they are a blessing that one has to work for]
2) It’s not just the number of kids one has, but when. In general, Orthodox Jews get married and have kids younger than secular Jews.
3) The ‘altruism’ for kids comes not just in having them, but in dedicating the time, energy, emotions, thought, etc. necessary to properly raise them.
4) The motivation for having more or less kids is not based on a desire (or lack of a desire) to pass on one’s genes or provide for oneself in the future, but on other factors such as a) whether or not one sees it is a Mitzvah (religious commandment) and b) whether or not having kids gets in the way of other life goals (such as one’s career) or whether or not kids are seen as a primary goal in and of themselves.