What Explains Altruism in Humans?

This is a repost from June 17, 2012 which am prompted to do after reading William Patterson’s biography of Robert Heinlein.  Patterson recounts an incident in Heinlein’s life when he was a child and that is said to have influenced Heinlein for his entire life:  “A young couple was walking along a set of railroad tracks that cut through the park in those days when the woman got her heel caught in a switch – a nuisance, until they heard a train whistle approaching at speed. Another young man – the newspapers later said he was a tramp – stopped to help them get free. As the train bore down on them, the husband and the tramp struggled to get the woman free and were struck, all of them. The wife and the tramp were killed instantly and the husband was seriously injured…. Why did he [the tramp] do it? Wondered little Bobby and then adolescent Bobby – and so on repeatedly, did Midshipman Bob and politician Bob and adult Robert, understanding a bit more, a bit differently, every time he looked at it. This incident became a core image for him, one that showed him in a way beyond words what it means to be a human being.”

In this post I was searching for an answer to Heinlein’s question, “Why did he [the tramp] do it?”

Altruism, the practice of selfless behavior for the benefit of others, is an enigma.  We know that greed is part of human nature but selfless acts, even to the point of placing the actor in danger, are also common.  Some explanations hold that an altruistic act is actually done in furtherance of the actor’s own self-interest in order to encourage reciprocal behavior by others.  That makes most sense for those who live in a tribal culture where one’s willingness to help others will be known by everyone else.  It explains less in today’s world where we often need complete strangers to help us when a problem arises.

For example, consider this story from the UK Daily Mail:

Barry Eastwood, 54, had left the Abbey Santander branch in Cheetham Hill, Manchester, after withdrawing £1,000, the money for his car insurance. But as he crossed the road, Mr Eastwood tripped and fell on his face, breaking his glasses. The money was blown from his hand and Barry went back to his car with just £60 left. His son Richard, 29, who had been waiting for him, jumped out to try and recover some of it.

But to their amazement, dozens of passers-by began grabbing the notes as fast as they could, and returning them. The onlookers, all aged between about 12 and 25, managed to collect almost every note except one £20.

The grandfather of 13, said: “The money went flying in the air. I saw all these young lads started grabbing the notes and I thought I’ve got no chance here. ‘But they brought it all back – I couldn’t believe it! They were jumping up and catching the notes – it’s a shame no one had a camera. ‘There must have been about 20 lads – they were all young lads. I ended up with all the money back but £20.”

It appears Mr. Eastwood is the sole source of this story.  There is no indication that the UK Daily Mail just happened to have a reporter on site who captured it all.  It’s also hard to see what incentive Mr. Eastwood would have to make up such an elaborate story so it seems safe to assume it’s a true account of what happened.

Most of the reader comments were similar to these, which are representative:

99% of people are honest …

People in general are very nice! They’re honest, helpful & concerned …

So the moral of this story is that most people are decent …

But there was also this:

Of course they handed it back. It was Manchester and they vote Labour up there so they are not money grabbing Tories who are out for themselves.

If you agree with the majority of the commenters, that most people are honest and generous and want to help others then, for you at least, there is no need for further inquiry.

But if you believe as I do, that two contradictory propositions are involved, namely that most people are a mixture of good, bad, and ugly and can follow different paths at different times under different circumstances, but that altruism is also part of human nature, then further explanation is needed.

First, reciprocal altruism, sometimes called kinship altruism, must be seriously questioned, and perhaps even dismissed.  The “twenty lads” were complete strangers to Mr. Eastman.  It is difficult to see stranger to stranger selfless acts as just long-run self interest.

Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene rests on the theory that our selfish genes make us, “…survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes….This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior.’’

According to Dawkins we are born selfish and must be taught generosity and altruism. The selfish-gene theory of evolution offers a neatly concise explanation of kinship altruism since a selfish gene can look beyond its mortal host to the potential immortality it might achieve by promoting the survival of its replicas in the kin of its host.   An unselfish gene that promotes self-sacrifice on behalf of others would die out because it would have expended its potential in promoting the spread of genes outside its own replica set.  In this view of life, altruistic behavior could not have evolved and if found in a population it could only have resulted from structured learning of expected social norms.

Here’s the rub to that.  Altruistic behavior beyond kin is found in almost all human populations. Since populations and societies vary widely in the particular values they teach their children, and families and individuals also vary in the values they hold, what accounts for the near universal altruism to at least some degree in all or nearly all human populations?

A small digression:  Arab cultures can be harsh and unforgiving.  Arab cultures are generally organized by what we in the West refer to as strong-man rule. Brutality and cruelty is necessary to sustain the strong man’s power.  Yet, having traveled in Arab countries I wish to testify that a stranger in need of assistance will almost always find the local Arab population not only willing but even anxious to offer help.  Numerous acts of kindness were extended to me as a stranger in a strange land.  I once found myself in a Turkish grocery in an area of Turkey with no English speakers.  My Turkish is pitiful.  Yet soon I had the shop owner and I believe every single one of his customers following me around trying to understand my broken Turkish and sign language to help me find an item I wanted.  With their help I found it, and the smiles and expressions of relief that broke out on their faces were priceless.  Maybe they were just glad to get rid of me, but I believe they were genuinely made happy by helping me.  Other similar instances occurred in my travels in Eastern Turkey (Istanbul may as well be another planet), and other Arab countries [strictly speaking, Turks are not Arabs, but the two groups share many cultural characteristics].

Selfless acts occur even in such places as Paris.  Mrs. TeeJaw once left her credit card at a shop in a train station.  A young man ran almost a half mile to return it to her just as we were boarding the train.

Clearly, an explanation is needed.  One such is called Strong Reciprocity.  It differs from reciprocal altruism in that it is not restricted to family and friends.  From the emergence of modern human evolution about 200,000 years ago until about 10,000 years ago, humans lived mostly in small bands of individuals who made their living as hunter/gathers, or sometimes by pillage of other tribes.

These small bands were often threatened with extinction or dispersal, say through war, pestilence, or famine.  At such times cooperation was most needed for survival.  Reciprocal altruism based solely on kinship would have been inadequate to protect the group.  Every man for himself would not have been evolutionarily stable.  A human alone in wildness is a weak and vulnerable creature, especially in primitive conditions.  Since we know that homo sapiens were extremely successful survivors during these times, some form of group cooperation must have evolved.  A process of natural selection may have occurred that favored individuals who increased their own chances of survival by acting selflessly to increase the survival rate of the group in a primitive and dangerous world where a single individual or family faced long odds.

An apt metaphor might be the danger presented to an individual human or a small number of humans from an attack by a saber-toothed tiger or a cave bear.  One or even three or four humans would have been vulnerable, but ten or twelve humans armed only with sharp sticks constitutes a formidable defense against just about any threat that existed in those times.  In that time and place, in those circumstances, the synergy of the individual and the group would have been starkly evident to those with genes both selfish and wise.

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