Professor Jerry Coyne makes a surprising admission on the origins of altruism in a recent post titled, David Sloan Wilson tells the BBC that the evolution of altruism in humans is “solved”: it’s group selection (of course). In his no-holds-barred critique of David Sloan Wilson’s “group selection” theory of how altruism arose, Coyne is refreshingly frank in his acknowledgement of what scientists don’t know about altruism:
The fact is that human ‘altruism’ is a mixture of diverse and complex behaviors, only one of which corresponds to the real evolutionary issue of altruism: reproductive self-sacrifice by people that benefits unrelated people who give nothing back. And we simply haven’t the slightest idea whether that form of altruism evolved, or even if it has a genetic basis: i.e., that we have specific genes promoting such reproductive sacrifice. “True” biological altruism in humans appears rare, and when it does it appears to hijack behaviors that evolved, probably by individual or kin selection, for other reasons. Finally, there are formidable problems with explaining altruism and self-sacrificial cooperation by group selection compared to individual selection (see Pinker reference below) – problems that make the group selection explanation less parsimonious…
But for the most cogent critique of why human cooperation and altruism are unlikely to have evolved by group selection, see Steve Pinker’s Edge essay, “The false allure of group selection.” I won’t repeat his many arguments, but if you’re interested in the evolution of traits that seem bad for the individual but good for the group, it’s a must-read. One of his most telling arguments is that the traits that lead one group to dominate others are in fact not altruistic: they’re things like coercion, slavery, contempt for weakness, and so on. Groups that we see as really altruistic, like the Amish and San, don’t seem to have done well in inter-group competition…
In the end, Wilson is simply wrong in asserting that the evolutionary problem of altruism has been solved – and here I mean the existence of true biological altruism in humans. We don’t have any idea if such altruism is even based on “altruism” genes. (And if we all have such genes, why do so few of us display true biological altruism?)”
Of course, Coyne has his own pet theory of how true altruism arose: he thinks it’s just a spin-off of reciprocal behavior.
Simple “helping” behaviors that likely evolved in our ancestors, in which individuals benefit those who aren’t especially closely related, could have evolved by individual selection, via a “tit-for-tat” strategy, also called “I’ll scratch your back; you scratch mine”). In these scenarios, individuals remember and recognize each other so that help given to a group-member will eventually be repaid. In other words, the “sacrifice” is only temporary and illusory since it’s repaid. If altruism like that—which isn’t true altruism in the sense that you don’t lose net reproductive fitness — evolved by individual selection, we’d expect to see it evolve in smallish groups in which individuals remember and recognize each other so that generous acts can be repaid to the right people. These are in fact precisely the conditions under which most of human evolution took place…
As I say in Faith versus Fact, where I’m addressing Francis Collins’s claim that altruism couldn’t have evolved at all but must have been vouchsafed us by God:
In fact, many aspects of cooperation and altruism are precisely those we’d expect if their rudiments had evolved [by individual selection]. Altruism toward others is reciprocated most often when many people know about it, but often isn’t when you can get away with free riding. Humans have sensitive antennae for detecting violations of reciprocity, they choose to cooperate with more generous individuals, and they cooperate more when it enhances their reputation. These are signs not of a pure, God-given altruism, but of a form of cooperation that would evolve in small bands of human ancestors.
An obvious problem with Coyne’s account is that true altruism requires an extended concept of self in order to justify it. One needs to either identify one’s true self with a larger group (e.g. the tribe, or society, or humanity), or locate one’s true identity in something – call it the soul if you like – which transcends the body. And in order to have such an enriched concept of self, one needs to possess a language in which one is capable of formulating this concept. But as recent research has shown, it appears that language arose very suddenly, in a manner which remains highly mysterious. In other words, evolutionary accounts of the origin of altruism fail because they do not adequately address the origins of human language.
In other news, it appears that late Acheulean hand axes required advanced cognition on the part of their makers, 500,000 years ago.
What do readers think about the origins of altruism?