Intelligent Design

Altruism, evolutionary psychology, and the heroes of Mumbai

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(Service note: If you had trouble finding Uncommon Descent last night, we had to change servers due to traffic problems. Sorry for inconvenience. – d.)

Yesterday, in “From the Small Warm Pond to Cooties,” Barry challenged an attempted “evolutionary” explanation of teasing. Evolutionary psychology’s explanations of just about anything are routinely uninformative, but they tend to fare unusually badly with altruism, of which there were some remarkable examples in the recent Mumbai terror attacks.

In “Heroes At The Taj” (Forbes, December 1, 2008) Michael Pollack thanks his saviors:

Far fewer people would have survived if it weren’t for the extreme selflessness shown by the Taj staff, who organized us, catered to us and then, in the end, literally died for us.
They complemented the extreme bravery and courage of the Indian commandos, who, in a pitch-black setting and unfamiliar, tightly packed terrain, valiantly held the terrorists at bay.

It is also amazing that, out of our entire group, not one person screamed or panicked. There was an eerie but quiet calm that pervaded–one more thing that got us all out alive. Even people in adjacent rooms, who were being executed, kept silent.

It is much easier to destroy than to build, yet somehow humanity has managed to build far more than it has ever destroyed. Likewise, in a period of crisis, it is much easier to find faults and failings rather than to celebrate the good deeds. It is now time to commemorate our heroes.

 

Also, in “For heroes of Mumbai Terror Was a Call to Action” (New York Times, December 1, 2008), Somini Sengupta reports,
Overnight, Mr. Zende became one of Mumbai’s new heroes, their humanity all the more striking in the face of the inhumanity of the gunmen. As the city faced one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in the nation’s history, many ordinary citizens like Mr. Zende, 37, displayed extraordinary grace.
Many times, they did so at considerable personal risk, performing acts of heroism that were not part of their job descriptions. Without their quick thinking and common sense, the toll of the attacks would most likely have been even greater than the 173 confirmed dead on Monday.

 

A friend wrote to ask me if I knew of an evolutionary explanation for altruism. I replied:

First, if by “evolution,” we mean “Darwinian evolution,” then altruism would mean helping one’s own kinfolk in order to preserve one’s own genes – which one shares with them (= Dawkins’s ” “selfish gene”). That really doesn’t apply to situations where people help strangers at the risk of their own lives.

An elaboration of the theory (= the meme, also a Dawkins idea) holds that a mechanistic process in the brain causes a unit of thought (a meme) to spread from person to person, so that – for example – Mother Theresa might rescue abandoned children and raise them as Catholic Christians, thus helping her selfish memes. That really doesn’t apply here either. I have made clear before that I consider both concepts better suited to pop culture than to science.

In The Spiritual Brain, Mario Beauregard and I wrote about instances of heroic altruism here in boring Toronto – young men jumping onto the subway tracks to rescue an old woman who had got dizzy and fallen in, and motorists rushing toward the Air France jumbo that crashed near Highway 401 (the provincial artery) and helping the evacuation – which proceeded in such an orderly fashion that no one died.

The really amazing thing – to me at least – is that human altruism can be sparked in circumstances that do not involve life or death. Have a look at this story, for example – the Texas woman Marilyn Mock who bought another woman’s lost house for her. So a claim that a special brain circuit kicks in during a life-or-death crisis doesn’t seem fully explanatory either.

More generally, psychologists who are searching for an animal model are doubtless looking in the wrong direction. They should, in my view, begin by rcognizing that this type of behaviour is characteristically human and probably requires a human level of consciousness. Its principal characteristic was summed up by Mock, who explained, “If it was you, you’d want somebody to stop and help you” – that is, one sees another self as equivalent to one’s own self and regards another’s interests as one’s own. Searching for an animal that does this “naturally” is an uninformative waste of time because humans don’t do it “naturally”; we do it only sometimes, and what’s remarkable is that we do it at all.

Is the human race evolving toward more altruism? Some evolutionary theorists, like Teilhard de Chardin, have argued for such a position, but they are not Darwinians and are generally attacked by Darwinians.

Some good research has been done on altruism in humans; I’ve heard good things about Oliner’s The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers Of Jews In Nazi Europe, though I haven’t read it. David Stove also has some interesting thoughts on the subject in Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity, and Other Fables of Evolution. Here is my long review of Stove’s book. Some other altruism stories are here.

To sum up, as Stove would have it, the fact that altruism is a problem in evolutionary psychology tells you much about evolutionary psychology and little about altruism.
(Note: The photo, taken 2005, is Mumbai from the air, from Know India. )

35 Replies to “Altruism, evolutionary psychology, and the heroes of Mumbai

  1. 1
    GSV says:

    “Searching for an animal that does this “naturally” is an uninformative waste of time because humans don’t do it “naturally”; we do it only sometimes, and what’s remarkable is that we do it at all.”

    I think you are on to something here, it is obvious we are more than the animal kingdom, but you have to define what is ‘natural’ for humans. Can you elaborate?

  2. 2
    jerry says:

    There is no accepted definition for intelligence and when anyone tries to differentiate the differences between humans and other animals, attempts to find common acceptance on what it is has failed.

    We can point to things humans do that no animals seem capable of but somehow this quality has eluded a distinct definition.

    Consequently, we humans are just looked at by many as slightly more or this and that and less of something else by the scientists who investigate the phenomena of intelligence.

    I sat through an exasperating course of the teaching company called Big History and the instructor said the unique thing about humans is they use accumulated knowledge. We constantly build and retain and then improve. Something that does not seem to be present in other species which if they do this, it is minimal.

    How altruism appears out of this by evolutionary processes is a mystery. It seems more built in or is it part of this accumulated knowledge.

  3. 3
    JT says:

    First of all, as I think you probably alluded to somewhere, its not hard to find examples of extreme altruism among animals directed to their own pack, kin, social group, etc.
    There have been all sorts of stories of heroic animals – dogs dragging their owners’ babies to safety, saving their owner’s from drowning, and so on. But a dog can change a pack, and thus loyalites whenever circumstances are imposed on him that dictate it. A dog get’s seperated from his master. A kind stranger gives him a pat on the head a bite to eat and a place to sleep and the next morning this is the dog’s new pack that it will give its life for. Of course altruistic behavior in dogs can be conditioned in a more systematic way, in seeing-eye dogs for example. But is it any less altruistic how such a dog tirelessly and cheerfully, and with unflagging devotion to duty, devotes his every waking moment to guarding the personal safety of his charge?

    Altrustic behavior unique to human consciousness? Hardly.

    In the case of human altruism – does it really have nothing to do with loyalty to some kin group? With the Mumbai hostages, you have a group of people all facing the same peril. In such a circumstance you form a kinship with those in your immediate context that are facing the exact same peril as you. This becomes your family – perhaps the last people you may see on this earth. However, do you really think if a person had his actual family members with him in such a setting, that any other person on earth would take precedence over his own flesh and blood? His natural family would always come first. But in their absence, you form a family with whomever you can. If even a dog’s loyalties are dynamic and changeable – certainly a human’s are as well.

    Spontaneous displays of extreme generosity, and indeed other types of selflessness or bravery are often done in attempt to broaden a person’s kingroup. Certainly if someone buys a house for a stranger, they might expect to have a friend for life, not someone who would slap them in the face. So obviously acts of altruism are done in the hope of something good in return, most often something to do with camraderie which has its own long term rewards. A homeless man in a subway sees his chance for heroism and grabs it in an instant. “Now people won’t turn away from me in disgust.”, he tells himself.

    I notice you didn’t mention any kindness directed towards the terrorists. That would be the only type of altruism that perhaps you couldn’t find a parallel for in the animal kingdom. But then dogs are selflessly loyal to cruel masters as well.

    Please remember to have your pets spayed or neutered.

    Thank you.

  4. 4
    Clive Hayden says:

    Reciprocal Altruism, often cited by evolutionary psychologists, should finally be dismissed because, it is, after all, a contradiction in terms.

    Reciprocal–doing something for a return.

    Altruism–doing something without regard to yourself or a return.

    Reciprocal Altruism–Selfish Selflessness.

    Contradiction in terms.

  5. 5
    jerry says:

    An aside from my last comment. I believe one of the hypothesized homo sapiens predecessor used the same tools for several million years. This indicates an intelligence but the inability to improve on it.

    Did something happen to the line a relatively short time ago in terms of earth history that changed this?

  6. 6
    Rude says:

    I have to agree that humans are not completely unique in the altruism department, there are whole books on the subject of animal altruism, as in this recent story. But I also have to disagree with Jerry (given also that there is no “accepted definition” of anything):

    There is no accepted definition for intelligence and when anyone tries to differentiate the differences between humans and other animals, attempts to find common acceptance on what it is has failed.

    In the Bible, as understood by chazal, man is unique in that he has been endowed with language. Animals must rely on their wits, instinct, intuition, feelings, the goodness in their souls—and Scripture gives them souls (Genesis 1:20—“And God said: Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures [néphesh] …”; verse 24—“And God said: Let the earth bring forth the living creature [néphesh] . . .”), just as it gives man a soul (Gen 2:7—“. . . and man became a living soul [néphesh].”).

    Dawkins is right, people mindlessly repeat clichés—which he renamed memes and materialists applaud as a brilliant observation. But people can be educated. Language lets man seek the divine via science, and language opens man to revelation and ethics deeper than the feelings of his soul (on that perhaps some here more biblically oriented would be interested in this book).

  7. 7
    PhilipBaxter says:

    Rude,

    man is unique in that he has been endowed with language

    I’ve known parrots more interesting then people. I know some chimps have been taught sign language.
    And it’s known that whales communicate in a hierarchical language that resembles in some ways (complexity, redundancy, predictability) human languages. English is about 10 bits of information for each word spoken, whale song is just under a bit. The whales repeat unique phrases made up of short and long segments to craft a song. There are multiple layers, or scales, of repetition, denoted as periodicities. One scale is made up of six units, while a longer one consists of 180-400 units. The combined periodicities give the song its hierarchical structure.
    Information theory in this case provided a quantitative analysis of the complexity and structure of the songs. And you can’t sing without a language!

  8. 8
    PhilipBaxter says:

    Clive,

    Reciprocal Altruism–Selfish Selflessness.

    Contradiction in terms.

    There are preconditions required before Reciprocal Altrusim can kick in. And the point is that even though an altrustic behaviour is being performed in the present and may prove beneficial to only one of the individuals involved, under a system of reiprocal altruism the other person will eventually be repaid in kind.
    There must be a high leve of mutual dependence among the individuals in group also. So, is it really selfish selflessness?
    Reiprocal altruism seems to develop of it’s own accord when the situation is right (see Advances in Psychology Research By Serge P. Shohov for starters) and has identifiable benefits.

    So, I’m not sure why to dismiss it so fast, unless you have a replacement ready to explain the same data?

  9. 9
    jerry says:

    Rude,

    I agree that humans are different but when academics have put their mind to it, there was no defining characteristic that was unique or stood out. There is no conspiracy here, just the inability to find a distinguishing characteristic. Hence, the use of accumulated knowledge as a defining difference by some sub group of academia.

    Language is obviously important but various animals use less sophisticated forms of it. What ever quality you identify with humans, you can find some lesser use of it in some animals, for example, the use of tools.

  10. 10
    Clive Hayden says:

    Philip,

    “Reiprocal altruism seems to develop of it’s own accord when the situation is right (see Advances in Psychology Research By Serge P. Shohov for starters) and has identifiable benefits.

    So, I’m not sure why to dismiss it so fast, unless you have a replacement ready to explain the same data?”

    Yes, I do. We should call it “Give-and-Take” for that’s really what is occuring, not Reciprocal Altruism, because, at bottom, the terms “Reciprocal” and “Altruism”, when used together, cancel each other out.

    No one doubts that mutually benefitial behaviour done with the intent of reciprocity occurs, but this isn’t altruism. We have to do some damage to the concept of altruism in order to make it reciprocal.

  11. 11
    Rude says:

    “What ever quality you identify with humans, you can find some lesser use of it in some animals, for example, the use of tools.” Yes, agreed, to the extent that animals are souled creatures. But as for human language, nothing really comes remotely close.

    All souled creatures express their feelings by gestures and what was popularized as “body language” in Allan Pease’s 1981 Body Language: How to read others’ thoughts by their gestures. Human language goes far beyond that by coding complex information—not simply attitudinal information. There’s a big difference.

    The difference is that a gesture, a facial expression, a tail wag, a whimper, an expletive . . . is a wholistic proposition. Animals, in this sense, have use of a finite number of propositions with which they express their feelings—much the same as humans. Humans, on the other hand, also learn words. Words have meaning but apart from some context they are devoid of information. Animals can learn such words, but for them these function as wholistic propositions: Sit! Giddy-up!

    The minimal unit of information is the proposition or clause (or ƒ(x) in mathematics), and whereas in animal communication these are wholistic entities, in human language they are complex structures. There are three basic levels of structure in human language:

    1. Words that code meaning

    2. Clauses that code information

    3. Discourse that codes coherence

    Suffice it to say here that meaning is and information happens—that meaning is timeless whereas information is time bound—information can be stored (as on your hard drive or in a dusty book), but it cannot be accessed outside of time.

    There has been a great effort on the part of materialists (and/or animal lovers in general) to demonstrate that animals have language almost on a par with us; nevertheless I don’t think that we profit by denying that animals have absolutely nothing analogous. Animals are not automatons, machines like your computer, they share with us a nonmechanistic ingredient that feels and calculates and acts—admittedly to a much lesser degree in some important respects. But neither do we get anywhere by ignoring the fact that human language is light years beyond anything found in the animal world.

    Maybe this is why materialists are prone to demean human language—if you wonder about this just read sometime Jacques Ellul, maybe especially his The Humiliation of the Word (La Parole humiliée. Paris, 1981).

    Oh! OK, bees—their propositions are structured and code the information of a precise location. Though marvelous, don’t expect bees to divulge any complex information beyond that anytime soon.

  12. 12
    Laminar says:

    “Altruism–doing something without regard to yourself or a return.”

    I think this would put true altruism out of reach of almost anyone. If I help someone because I percieve them to be in need (and I feel some empathy) then I get a ‘reward’ by feeling good about my good deed, or satisfaction in the knowledge that I helped them.

    If I help someone because I believe that God wants me to help the needy then I may also be doing it for my own benefit. It might be a spiritual reward I can look forward to in the afterlife, or it might be that I can feel assured that I will not be punished for my lack of action, or to feel that God approves of me, even though he would forgive me if I didn’t act.

    In the strict sense of the word it might be that only an atheist who hates everyone could be truly altruistic – They have don’t believe in any spiritual rewards and they don’t believe that anyone deserves their help so if they do help someone and it doesn’t make them feel good then they are being altruistic.

  13. 13
    JT says:

    jerry said:

    “I agree that humans are different but when academics have put their mind to it, there was no defining characteristic that was unique or stood out. There is no conspiracy here, just the inability to find a distinguishing characteristic. Hence, the use of accumulated knowledge as a defining difference by some sub group of academia.”

    Everything I say below is derived from a T.V. series: “Guns Germs and Steel”

    Not all human groups accumulate knowledge to any significant extent. For there to be accumulation of knowledge from generation to generation, and an identifiable historical progression unfolding continuously through time for a group, it requires that certain key attributes be present in that group. Its most directly related not to human biology, but the biology of their environment.

    If every member is spending every waking hour in a search for food, then there is no accumulation of knowledge. There has to be food surpluses to enable divisions of labor and specialization, and subsequently the ability to maintain and promulgate knowledge and pass it on to subsequent generations through schooling and so forth, all of which requires ever increasing amounts of time and resources.

    But anyway, that series was talking about tribes from New Guinea living in the same hunter-gatherer state for thousands upon thousands of years with no change whatsoever. And as the series pointed out it had nothing to do with intelligence, but rather for example, their food. Whatever the plants available to them were extremely labor intensive to secure in sufficient quantities. But their were other problems, like the types of beast of burden available to them. But society as we know it is directly tied to wheat, barley and the domestication of animals. For very specific reasons, society as we know it in the West (and in most parts of the world today) are impossible without these things.

    But in New Guinea, society reached a certain point sustainable by their physical environment and then just stuck there. There is a static level of knowledge that is passed from generation to generation but there is no accumulation of knowledge, which is what you said was the key factor in distinguishing men from animals (which apparently it isn’t). Animals themselves most definitely have a certain static level of knowledge about their physical environment that is passed on from generation to generation.

  14. 14
    Rude says:

    JT, I agree. There have been tribes whose technology differed little from that of a wolf pack, yet they all had language and they told stories and they speculated on the meaning of life.

    Language is the key—not technology or accumulated knowledge which is made possible by language.

    The ancients knew this, as in Targum Onqelos at Genesis 2:7, “And the LORD God created Adam dust from the ground, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and there was in Adam a spirit of speech [ruach m?mal?la].” And it’s there in the Yom Kippur prayer Tephillah Zakkah,

    ub?khoach haddibbur hivdalta et ha’adam min habb?hema

    ‘And by the power of speech you differentiated man from animal’

  15. 15
    JT says:

    Rude I just looked at that picture of a dog pulling another dog to safety, that was amazing (I’ll assume he wasn’t merely claiming him as some sort of prize.)

    As far as language, someone in this thread or the other one was quantifying the degree of variation in whale songs and comparing it to the complexity of human speech, so I don’t know.

    Well, anyway the following is a followup to my previous post.

    In reference to the difference between men and animals – why can’t the accomplishments of humans be viewed as the accomplishments of the collective biological organism on the earth. As domesticated animals are an utterly indispensable attribute of human civilization, without which human civilization would not exist, why shouldn’t they be given partial credit. (For example, herding animals, which are the only domesticatable type of large mammal, the varieties of which actually being quite rare.) Speaking of altruism, what about all the animals that continually give their lives and the lives of their offspring as sacrifices to sustain humans in society. Their nature is to be amenable to serve us – either they’re altruists or we’re thieves.

    Also consider the properties of wheat which make it amenable to long term storage, and the attributes of it that facilitate its mass cultivation. In other words human society as we know it only results from the juxtaposition of numerous distinct organic elements – take any one of them out and society no longer exists. So one organism cannot take credit for the entire complex system. Furthermore its not only man that undergoes accelerated advancement and change in civilization. How many seeing-eye dogs are there in the wild. Dogs in general are being selectively bred for increasingly complex tasks in society. And these sorts of tasks don’t take place when only humans are in the mix. Everything else has to be in place. For humans to take credit for human civilization is like the Pharohs of Ancient Egypt taking credit for Egypt. They were the biggest beneficiaries in that society but could not take credit for it.

  16. 16
    Rude says:

    Take credit? Well, yes, why not?!

    The beasts, of course, do not step up and demand credit, but we should give it to them anyway—out of our altruism—even if this presents a problem for the Darwinists.

  17. 17
    Sola Raison says:

    Speaking of altruism, what about all the animals that continually give their lives and the lives of their offspring as sacrifices to sustain humans in society. Their nature is to be amenable to serve us – either they’re altruists or we’re thieves.

    While I am not sure that this is what is meant by altruism I agree with what you are saying here. We have learned how to mechanically steal from nature, but this doesn’t necessarily correspond to being a “thief” in any honest usage of the word.

    Learning how to systematically and scientifically adjust this thievery is a major advantage over toiling in vain. In a nutshell, this accurately describes modern agriculture perfectly. Machined fertilizer has proven much cheaper and mass produced than manure, and manure takes a lot of work to put back into the soil correctly, and a lot of work to get it.

    It is no coincidence that civilization arose where it did.

  18. 18
    ribczynski says:

    A test to see if my comments are still being placed in the moderation queue.

    While I’m here, a few remarks on the subject of evolutionary psychology:

    1. There is definitely a danger of falling for “just-so” stories in evolutionary psychology, as ID supporters love to point out, but that hardly invalidates the entire field.

    Kin selection, for example, makes the following solid, falsifiable prediction: In any social species, individuals will on average treat close kin better than they treat strangers.

    Think about that for a second. In the absence of natural selection, there’s no reason that this must be true. A Designer could easily make a species in which it worked the other way around. Yet we see it in all social species and in every human society that has ever been studied. That’s solid.

    2. Evolutionary psychology doesn’t claim that everyone acts a certain way all the time. A single instance of anomalous behavior does not invalidate a prediction about average or typical behavior.

    Denyse likes to cite the case of Marilyn Mock, the Texas woman who bought a house for a stranger. But this is anything but typical behavior, which is precisely why it is newsworthy. In fact, I’ll guarantee that Mock has been asked more than once, “Buying a house for a complete stranger? Are you crazy??”, which proves my point. We don’t expect that kind of behavior, so we sit up and take notice when it does happen.

    It is the exception, not the rule.

    3. Clive argues that ‘reciprocal altruism’ is an oxymoron, because something done for the sake of a future return is not really altruistic at all.

    This overlooks the fact that adaptive behaviors are not always consciously adaptive.

    A father jumps into the ocean to save his only child, not because he thinks to himself “If I don’t save her, I won’t leave any descendants”, but because he loves her and is willing to sacrifice his own life to protect her from harm. His action is genuinely altruistic. Nevertheless, the fact that he saves her is what allows his genes to propagate.

    One teen lusts for another, not because she wants to have children with him, but to satisfy a desire that evolution has created within her. Nevertheless, her desire may end up bringing her a son or daughter.

    A person may help a total stranger out of pure goodwill, but that doesn’t mean that the behavior is selfless in an evolutionary sense.

    4. For the majority of their evolutionary history, humans (and their primate ancestors) have lived in small groups. Altruism toward non-kin might seem maladaptive to us as modern-day humans, especially when most of the strangers we encounter are people we will never see again, but it makes much more sense in the context of the small groups in which we evolved, where everyone knows everyone else. In such a setting it benefits you to have a reputation as a nice, generous person. Even if the person you help never repays you directly, your enhanced reputation will benefit you in interactions with others.

    Reputation is a powerful thing, and it must have been even more powerful in small tribal groups where everyone knew everybody.

    An aside: I recently sent a significant sum of money to a complete stranger in England. Why? He was selling a piece of equipment I needed on Ebay, and he had a 99% positive seller rating.

    To my mind, the key of Ebay’s success was in coming up with a way to make buyers’ and sellers’ reputations visible to total strangers who otherwise would be reluctant to enter into a transaction.

  19. 19
    lukaszk says:

    I do not think altruism is a good evidence on life purpose. It may be only brain washing effect. Evidences should be searched outside human brain.

  20. 20
    Rude says:

    The premise behind evolutionary psychology is that we are programable automatons, soulless products of natural selection. And the reason The Brights gloat is that they are the fittest that have survived that selection.

    If there is no free will, and if materialism is a higher form of nonconsciousness, and if science equals Darwinism (as established by judicial fiat), then the memes of the masses should be headed for extinction.

    But then who cares what the Intelligentsia thinks?

    Well, sometimes the superior take themselves a bit too seriously, and there is always the temptation to speed up the Darwinian process—to compensate for the damage done by the devout.

  21. 21
    vjtorley says:

    A few comments:

    (1) On the question of the differences between humans and other animals (especially mammals), I think it is wise to remind ourselves of how much we still do not know. The following quote from Moti Nissani (Department of Biology, Wayne State University) expresses this point perfectly:

    “All past and present claims to the contrary, science cannot yet resolve the question of animal consciousness. For over a century, scientists believed that evolutionary theory required at least some traces of consciousness in animals. Empirical studies (e.g., on insight, language acquisition, mirror self-recognition, and deception) lent further support to this viewpoint. In retrospect, however, neither theory nor experiments proved decisive.

    “The search for insight in animals likewise confronts us with more questions than answers. As we have seen, the few controlled experiments in this area lend themselves to alternative interpretations. Likewise, our own search for insight in elephants failed to resolve this question…

    “Decades of innovative experimentation with many species of animals besides the great apes may be needed before we know whether or not we are the only conscious beings on earth” (“Theory of Mind and Insight in Chimpanzees, Elephants, and Other Animals?” at http://www.is.wayne.edu/mnissa.....nscrev.htm ).

    Readers might also like to view Nissani’s informative 2008 lecture, “Can Animals (especially elephants) Think?” at http://www.is.wayne.edu/mnissa.....sThink.pdf . Nissani tentatively concludes that elephants and chimpanzees do not realize that people can see. This suggests that they lack a theory of mind.

    (2) The claim that differences between humans and other animals are purely quantitative is popular in scientific circles. It is therefore interesting to see an article in “New Scientist” magazine which lends support to precisely the opposite view. An article by Andy Coghlan (28 April 2008) cites research by anthropologist Maurice Bloch of the London School of Economics, who claims that religion evolved in human societies because humans are the only animals with the brain architecture allowing them to imagine things and beings that don’t physically exist, and the possibility that people somehow live on after they’ve died. Chimps, by contrast, are unable to imagine beyond their immediate social circle; nor can they imagine situations that are backwards or forwards in time. (The article may be viewed at http://www.newscientist.com/ar.....ation.html .)

    (3) Although there is good evidence that some birds (e.g. scrub jays) can remember where they have previously hidden food (episodic memory), human beings are the only animals known to possess what psychologists refer to as autobiographical memory. Without such a capacity, it is impossible for an individual to resolve to lead a better life – surely an indispensable requirement for truly moral behavior.

    (4) In response to contributors who have written about animal altruism: the difference is that an animal’s altruism is unreflective. A “bad” dog does not reflect on its “faults and failings” – e.g. its lack of empathy for other sentient beings – and resolve to be a “good” dog in the future. Yet human beings do that sort of thing all the time. I daresay I am less altruistic than some of the guide dogs mentioned in earlier posts by readers – but I can at least get off my lazy posterior and do something about this fact. The dogs cannot.

    (5) On the vexed issue of animal language, I’d like to draw readers’ attention to a technical paper entitled “Information entropy of humpback whale songs,” which should be of interest to all serious ID researchers, for the methodology it employs), on the subject of whale language. Even though the authors uncover evidence that whale songs may possess a recursive structure (previously thought to be unique to human language), the authors qualify their remarks towards the end of their paper:

    “It is important to emphasize that we do not claim that humpback songs are a language in the sense recognized by linguists. Hauser et al. [2002] define the ‘conceptual-intentional’ component of a language as the property that the different sentences produced as the words are rearranged within the grammatical structure ‘differ systematically in meaning.’ There is no evidence that humpback songs satisfy this linguistic requirement.

    “In closing, there is substantial quantitative evidence consistent with the sequence of units in the humpback songs being organized in a hierarchical structure, but equally strong evidence that this sequence is carrying relatively little information” (Suzuki et al.: “Information entropy of humpback whale songs” in J. Acoust. Soc. Am., Vol. 119, No. 3, March 2006, at http://www.smast.umassd.edu/AS.....SA2005.pdf ).

  22. 22
    allanius says:

    Differences between men and beasts are not the optimal starting point for critiquing EP. As elaborated, the theory cannot be falsified; some fanciful explanation can be dreamed up for virtually any behavior.

    The most glaring weakness of EP lies in its dependence upon theory and lack of sensuous (empirical) content. There is no experiment, no physicial investigation that can confirm the claims made by EP.

    Subjectively oberving the “behavior” of animals is not enough. EP must demonstrate the hard wiring that it claims exists. This it cannot do; and until it can, its proponents would do well demonstrate some degree of modesty (any degree will do) with regard denominating EP as a science.

  23. 23
    Rude says:

    Much was made years back of the recursive nature of human language (clauses within clauses), a feature that permits an unlimited number of sentences and is thus compatible with human creativity. Nevertheless the obsession of the time was the sentence and not discourse. It was generally ignored that in human language one clause follows another and there is no limitation on what can be expressed whether or not there is embedding.

    Thus “John wants Bill to pay him” can be rephrased as “John wants money and Bill will pay him”; “The man that you told me about arrives tomorrow” might also be expressed as “You told me about the man and he will arrive tomorrow.”

    The bulk of grammar deals not with recursivity but with discourse, with referent recovery, focus/perspective, backgrounding/foregrounding, negotiating with other minds—the end result is hierarchical: sounds are organized into words which are organized into sentences which are organized into paragraphs which are organized into speeches, conversations, books, etc., all with many intertwining connections.

    Anyway Chomsky was right to reject Skinnerian behaviorism (almost to the point of criticizing materialism, e.g., this from Gary Cziko’s The Things We Do, page 183: “Curiously, his anti-Darwinism goes so far as even to deny Darwinian evolution an important role in the evolution of the human capacity for language.” Yet, of course, one simply cannot be identified with Intelligent Design). Be it recursivity and/or discourse, yesterday’s linguists were right to note that most sentences are novel constructions—just try finding even this sentence by Googling it!

    Human language is not the mere playing out of algorithms or the output of some awesomely complex machine—rather it issues from a mind which is not entirely a machine.

    Then as for the animals—of course it’s difficult to achieve any consensus on whether they are conscious when there is no consensus on whether we are conscious. When I used to herd cattle I was confident that they were conscious, but the final proof, I guess, would be when they talk back and pass the Turing test.

  24. 24
    Clive Hayden says:

    ribczynski,

    “3. Clive argues that ‘reciprocal altruism’ is an oxymoron, because something done for the sake of a future return is not really altruistic at all.

    This overlooks the fact that adaptive behaviors are not always consciously adaptive.”

    It doesn’t overlook it, it doesn’t even consider it. We are, after all, talking about the meaning of words, and what the words “reciprocal” and “altruism” mean, when used together, is a contradiction. No amount of conscious or unconscious, drowsiness or alertness of adaptation will change that fact.

  25. 25
    JT says:

    vjtorley [21]:
    The claim that differences between humans and other animals are purely quantitative is popular in scientific circles. It is therefore interesting to see an article in “New Scientist” magazine which lends support to precisely the opposite view. An article by Andy Coghlan (28 April 2008) cites research by anthropologist Maurice Bloch of the London School of Economics, who claims that religion evolved in human societies because humans are the only animals with the brain architecture allowing them to imagine things and beings that don’t physically exist

    Differences in brain architecture are still quantitative differences. (Furthermore the article said this brain architecture had to “evolve” first.) If there are differences in brain architecture they are differences that can be quantified -possibly the relative size of various regions of the brain or, differences in the number of connections in a particular region, etc. None of the articles you listed suggested anything nonphysical was involved.

  26. 26
    JT says:

    Even if it was different chemicals it would be differences in atomic count.

  27. 27
    ribczynski says:

    Clive wrote:

    We are, after all, talking about the meaning of words, and what the words “reciprocal” and “altruism” mean, when used together, is a contradiction. No amount of conscious or unconscious, drowsiness or alertness of adaptation will change that fact.

    Clive,

    Your earlier comment demonstrates my point for me. You wrote:

    Altruism–doing something without regard to yourself or a return.

    A person who acts on someone else’s behalf with no regard for his own interests is acting altruistically.

    It doesn’t matter that the act might eventually redound to his benefit, as long as his intention was to act selflessly.

  28. 28
    Clive Hayden says:

    But of course, the actual definition in evolutionary psychology of reciprocal altruism is an altruistic act done for the intentional purpose of reciprocity.

  29. 29
    Clive Hayden says:

    Reciprocal Altruism:

    “An apparently altruistic behavior performed with the understanding that the recipient will reciprocate at some future date.”

    from Northwestern University:
    http://www.biochem.northwester.....ruism.html

    Or, if you like:

    “Mutually beneficial behavior in which an individual helps another because of expected reciprocal behavior.”

    from OU, University of Oklahoma.
    http://www.esse.ou.edu/glossary_st.html

  30. 30
    Clive Hayden says:

    Reciprocal Altruism, a contradiction in terms rib.

  31. 31
    ribczynski says:

    Clive,

    I can just as easily cite definitions showing that in the context of biology, “altruism” need not be conscious at all:

    In evolutionary biology, an organism is said to behave altruistically when its behaviour benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself.

    In human language, concepts are typically named by analogy. You might as well rail against the phrase “a parliament of owls”, arguing that owls don’t legislate.

  32. 32
    Clive Hayden says:

    rib,

    Sure, this can be the definiton of altruism:

    “In evolutionary biology, an organism is said to behave altruistically when its behaviour benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself.”

    but I see no context of “reciprocal altruism,” which is, of course, the real issue.

    And secondly, that definition has no bearing on consciousness or unconsciousness. If it said “In evolutionary biology, an organism is said to behave altruistically when its “unconscious” behaviour benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself.” And even if it did, I still wouldn’t see the relevancy of your point.

    Reciprocal Altruism is a contradiction in terms, regardless of whether it is analogous to anything; it is indeed analagous to relationships predicated on give-and-take, that doesn’t mean that the words chosen are proper, or that we’re talking about altruism when we make it necessarily reciprocal. I imagine that you’ll next claim that the animal is repaid in some way not related to their initial act of altruism, in which case, the reciprocity was a corrolary, and that real altruism and reciprocity is maintained because the acts would not be related. In which case, if the act of altruism and the act of reciprocity are not related, then there is no reciprocal altruism either. There is no way out of a contradiction.

  33. 33
    ribczynski says:

    Clive,

    I’m frankly baffled as to why you are so concerned about the terminology. Reciprocal altruism may or may not be “real” altruism in your view, but that doesn’t alter the fact that “reciprocal altruism” refers to a real phenomenon for which evolutionary psychology offers an explanation.

    Why does the phrase “reciprocal altruism” annoy you so much? To use my previous example:

    In human language, concepts are typically named by analogy. You might as well rail against the phrase “a parliament of owls”, arguing that owls don’t legislate.

  34. 34
    Clive Hayden says:

    The phrase is wrong, and the idea behind it is wrong, that’s why I have a problem with it. We use language to communicate particular things, and if those particular things are presenting a contradiction, there should be no problem or resistance against those who merely point out that fact. I can’t help but think that in any other context, outside of the precious belief in Darwinism and evolutionary psychology, pointing out a such a contradiction wouldn’t inspire such opposition.

    Either the folks who use the terminology are uneducated about language, in which case their credibility is diminished, or they know it’s a contradiction, yet promote it in a disengenuous way because it takes altruism and gives it a biological imperative, in which case the difficulty of explaining altruism while mantaining evolutionary causation is secured, albeit wrongly. It seems like a willingness to listen to critical nuanced evaluation of this topic is nowhere embraced, and in fact, the tactic that you’re espousing, that of wondering why such evaluation “annoys me”, as if the problem lay with “me”, is usually advanced; because, if you cannot defeat the argument, turn it around on the arguer and make it look as if they’re being unreasonable. It’s a common tactic, but it doesn’t actually advance or answer the arguer.

    Whatever real phenomena this proposes to explain, should be called what it really is, give-and-take. And we know that in this type of exchange, altruism has no place. No one would disagree that such a give-and-take exists in the animal kingdom, but it certainly isn’t “reciprocal altruism” that we’re watching occur. You may as well say that self-centered selflessness is occuring. And please stop claiming that nouns, such as a parliament of owls, is a relevant analogy to a description of action verbs. What we name things doesn’t matter, but describing actions and intention does matter. And, not to mention, I wouldn’t pitch the point to high that words don’t really mean anything, and that if they did expect them to mean things we should also explect owls to legislate by virtue of being called a parliament of owls. It is a complete non sequitur. And, of course it’s obvious, that if you want to make a comment that is discernable, then you expect your words to have particular and not arbitrary meanings. Maybe this article will help:

    http://scientificintegrity.blo.....ative.html

  35. 35
    Laminar says:

    Presumable if I help someone because I believe God will reward me, or will punish me if I don’t act or just approve of me in general, then I am not being altruistic because I am expecting some form of reward for my actions, even if it isn’t directly from the person I am helping and may just be a feeling of satisfaction at my own behaviour.

    This would be worrying because by a strict definition of altruism I could only be altruistic if I were to help someone whom I did not like, I did not believe that my actions would benefit them, or if then did then I would not care less, and I did not believe in any theological reward for altruistic behaviour.

    If true altruism is helping without regard to ones self or for return then surely anyone who helps another person and feels good about it afterwards is not really being altruistic?

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