Monday, January 10, 2005

The Evolution of Selflessness

The Enlightened Caveman links to this book -

Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment which has the dust jacket quote -
"If the genes of the self-serving are more likely to be perpetuated in succeeding generations, how it is that so many of us forgo self-interest in order to honor our commitments, devote large parts of our lives to the quest for knowledge, defending animal rights, human rights, or remaining true to a cause past reason? We humans routinely behave better than conventional evolutionary theory predicts we should. Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment resolves this paradox and in doing so, extends sociobiological theory to more fully encompass idiosyncrasies of the human heart. This is a revelatory book that carries us beyond premature conclusion about innate selfishness that, if accepted, erode human relationships based on any other premise. Any one looking for a rigorous alternative to Darwin's 'universal acid,' should read this book."

---Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
Hrdy is well worth reading in her own right.

Philosophy, et cetera, No Right Turn and GeniusNZ have more on this issue.

I don't agree with Philosophy, et cetera's distinction between Biology and Psychology. Although it is wrong to ascribe psychological motives to genes, it is our biology that provides the foundation of the cognitive abilities of belief, desire and motivation. Individuals can, and often do, have different goals from those of their genes but that does not mean that our psychology is free from their influence.

One cognitive ability essential for altruism to take place is what is call the Theory of Mind - the ability to perceive that someone else has a different world view. This mental ability appears quite early on in development, perhaps as early as 14 months. It is thought that autism is the result of a malfunction of this ability.

The Theory of Mind ability is recursive and quickly becomes very demanding of one's cognitive abilities as the Three Dirty Faces Problem shows (taken from an earlier blog):

Three young siblings, Alice, Sue and Bob, all turn up at home, after playing separately, with dirty faces.

Each does not know and cannot determine if their own face is clean or dirty but can see that the other two have dirty faces. (They do not talk or otherwise communicate with each other and there is nothing tricky like mirrors on the wall etc).

Their mother enters the room and says: "Not all your faces are clean" (Or, if you prefer, "Some of your faces are dirty").

The mother then asks "Put your hand up if you know your face is dirty".

How many times does she ask this same question before they all put their hands up?

Once you see that this is actually a valid question it becomes very intriguing and/or annoying.

One way of approaching the problem is to think of, for example, what Alice might think that Bob might think that Sue thinks. I couldn't work it out that way, it just gave me a headache. Its somewhat easier to start with less people and work up.


Blogger Richard said...

"I don't agree with Philosophy, et cetera's distinction between Biology and Psychology... Individuals can, and often do, have different goals from those of their genes but that does not mean that our psychology is free from their influence."

Of course, I never suggested anything to the contrary. My point is simply that psychological selfishness is a distinct question from biological/genetic 'selfishness'. It is no contradiction to note that 'selfish' genes can build altruistic minds. We need to individuate the person's point of view from the gene's point of view. (You do this yourself in my quote above.) So I'm not sure where we disagree.

10 January 2005 at 7:02 PM  
Blogger Sock Thief said...

On second thoughts I agree with you. That part of my arguement wasn't very well put.

11 January 2005 at 7:58 AM  
Blogger Genius said...

Ahh mind puzzles!

The funny thing is that I could theoretically solve such a problem BUT if you were one of the people in the room I might not be able to because you might give up and not raise your hand rationally (particularly if there was 4 or more people involved).

One additional solution would be to double guess and assume it is a fair test and say "i am sure you would not ask unless it was fair" or in another situation "unless it was directed at me".

12 January 2005 at 12:51 PM  
Blogger enlightenedcaveman said...

Hey - I hate to quibble with you, but I've never referenced that book on my site. In fact, I disagree with it entirely. This post pretty much sums up my feelings about altruism.

Aside from that, I really like your site. BTW- the current topic on my site is evolution versus creationism. I've covered it in three parts, with one particularly in-depth piece on the fallacy of intelligent design. I'd love to get your feedback...

21 January 2005 at 3:12 PM  

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