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altruism essay

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 30-Aug-2008

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: News Review

Page: 24

Wordcount: 2020

Nature and the Altruism Gene

The Essay

Elizabeth Farrelly

Are humans made of the right stuff to save their planet? Elizabeth Farrelly investigates.

Actual: The young gazelle braces itself on the slippery bank but when the crocodile erupts out of the khaki water, gripping its forelegs, luck alone saves it, and then briefly. Wounded now and terrified it cannot make purchase on the mud. The great reptile draws breath for a second strike and the end seems inevitable. Suddenly, from nowhere, a mama water buffalo appears like an angry mammoth. Horns lowered, she hooks them under the belly of the scrabbling, leggy creature, and deposits it out of harm’s way before returning to the water’s edge where she bellows and paws at the croc, which blinks once before disappearing silently beneath the waves.

Hypothetical: Schoolchildren in the 22nd century are taught the 20th, or American, century as the Century of Self, the era when, briefly, self-concern became a virtue. For a while, they learn, this equation – the cornerstone of empire – seemed staggeringly, blindingly successful: so successful it was amazing no-one had tried it before. Then, however, selfishness flipped, betraying the very empire it had founded. Gradually at first but with increasing ferocity, the private interest revealed itself as so starkly not the public interest as to collapse the entire dream like a gossamer castle.

Altruism, the uncalculated regard for another’s interests even at the expense of one’s own, is not something we expect from nature. It’s barely even something we expect from ourselves any more. But new research suggests that altruism may be hardwired. If so, it’s probably just as well, for it seems we’re going to need it.

Selfishness, on the other hand, is something we have long taken for granted. Natural selection, democracy, capitalism; the presumption of selfishness as the primary human motor underpins our economy, our politics and our world view. Not only that, but in the gradual 20th century segue from Christianity to humanism, selfishness has been recast from original sin to survival mechanism to saving grace.

The American collapse is hypothetical, of course. For all we know the American empire may recover, pumping itself up like a giant phasmid thought to be cactus when it paused only to shed a skin. But the indications are that for such a survival to occur – for climate change, peak oil, sub-prime and Iraq to appear as blips in history rather than a collective tipping point – the selfishness principle will have to move along.

Capitalism, Darwinism and democracy share not only a reliance on competitive self-interest but a presumption that self-interest works – or can be made to work – for the common good. As America’s patron saint Adam Smith so memorably wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

This was the essence of Smith’s famous invisible hand concept, and to the founding fathers it must have seemed, indeed, like manna from heaven. The invisible hand is the idea that a serendipitous glue ties individual self-betterment to the common good, so that the private interest and the public interest are, essentially, one.

The individual, wrote Smith, “intends only his own gain and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his original intention”. Greed, in other words, will drive people to beneficial behaviour: producing the right deed, albeit for the wrong reason.

Democracy, similarly, relies on the expectation that people will act selfishly – voting from the hip pocket, for example – but that these selfish acts will, nevertheless, magically deliver the greatest good to the greatest number. Such is our faith in this principle that we have fought wars in its defence, most vehemently against creeds that, like Marxism, strive to deliver public benefit at the expense of private.

The same idea took renewed force from Milton Friedman’s reworking, as realized by Reagan and Thatcher. Friedman’s famous formulation that “the social responsibility of business is to increase profits” hit corporates like the breath of god: now they could be grasping and virtuous in the very same act. Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, written in 1976, ran a strikingly similar theory. Evolution, argued Dawkins, is not species-based but gene-based, so successful genes are those that act, or make us act, to favour their own survival and spread. Thus the gene’s selfishness also benefits the kinship group, or tribe, as sharers in that gene.

This helps explain the difficulty step-parents so often have in treating step-children as their own, and the preparedness of adults in many species to forgo childbearing in order to nurture kindred young. It also makes marriage-with-children into “a relationship of mutual mistrust and mutual exploitation” that happens to benefit all participants. Altruism and selfishness in one.

But there was more. Similar messages were coming from other, disparate movements too, like the mid-century peace-love movement and feminism. This was, in essence, forget duty; assert yourself, indulge your desires, follow your dream. Do your own thing.

The result? In a word, consumerism. The 20th century saw a huge upsurge in personal wealth. In England, for example, individual income, which had been stable from the 13th century, doubled in 70 years between the late 19th century and the mid-20th, then tripled again by the end of that century.

The combination of this wealth volcano with the new selfishness, the new discipline of marketing and the Friedmanite re-thinking of institutions, governments and even nations primarily as businesses first, cultural entities second, led to the sustained purchasing explosion that we know as the modern global economy. Growth is good, we obligingly chant, growth is good.

But what we have elected not to notice is that human growth comes at a cost; the cost being planetary depletion. And this balance is continuing to shift. We now consume, for example, no more calories than our ancestors seven or eight generations back but because we spend fewer of our own calories (and more of the planet’s) in garnering, preparing and eating that food, we now have an obesity problem that is entirely new.

And it’s this conundrum that puts altruism in the limelight. For it is now becoming clear that, as democratic capitalism spreads pandemically across the globe, welcomed specifically for its wealth-creating and pleasure-giving powers, the only possible curb on consumption will be voluntary. We must choose to suppress self-interest, at least to a degree, for the sake of the common interest. We must choose altruism.

But can we? Is it even possible that altruistic behaviour could become commonplace, even normal – even expected – in the human race? Are we wired this way?

Until recently most researchers would have answered no. Altruism is learned, and then only as required. Take for instance the self-sacrifice of the ancient Spartans or the noblesse oblige tradition of the 19th century aristocrat.

But now, with a little more knowledge, things seem less clear. In 2006 Canadian researchers made headlines when they discovered what they called an “altruism gene” in a primitive multicellular alga, Volvox carterii. Volvox is an emergent organism in which some 2000 cells link to form a single organism. Of the 2000 cells, all but 16 “voluntarily” become somatic, or non-reproductive; committing evolutionary suicide to benefit the group.

The researchers traced this “reproductive altruism” to a gene they called RegA that, when switched on, inhibits cell-growth (and therefore reproduction). This, they believed, shed light on a question that had long mystified evolutionists, for whom self-serving competition is the driving principle of life; namely, how co-operative traits evolved in a system that traditionally puts nice guys last.

We know that many insect species, like bees and ants, show similar self-sacrificing behaviours, where designated individuals forgo reproductive capacity and devote their existences to the nurture or defence of the offspring of others. But the question arises, to what extent is this behaviour voluntary? Especially where it seems shaped principally by an interaction of a caste system and “selfish” genetic predisposition?

This is the free will aspect of morality. How can a behaviour be called “good” if it is preprogrammed? Surely any level of virtue depends on the operation of free will? What is altruism, exactly? Is it simple co-operation or generosity, as scientists generally assume? Or does it require an absence of self-betterment, or even the presence of self-sacrifice?

Many animal behaviours, including Volvox-type altruism, fall into the category of what Dawkins calls “kin-altruism”, which is designed to protect not just the individual’s own genes but other replicas of the same gene; selfishness by another name. In humans, most tribal and parental kindnesses fall into the same category.

The idea that humans might have such a gene is supported by psycho-neurological research, such as the 2007 study that showed when volunteers visualise themselves giving money to charity the bit of the brain that lights up is the pleasure portion, usually associated with food or sex.

Other studies show not only that women are much more strongly empathetic than men – which we already knew – but that the development of empathy and similar “other-sensitive” traits like expression-reading are strongly linked to estrogen surges in utero.

Empathy is not altruism, of course, and hormones are not genes. But evidence is mounting that humans do have strong and innate tendencies towards generosity, kindness and niceness, as well as selfishness and competition.

Niceness by itself is not counter-evolutionary. Indeed niceness, or co-operation, is usually explained by evolutionists as the obvious and necessary counterpoint to competition; co-operation and competition being the two spindles that hold the tribal thread in tension, keeping the herd together while still driving it forward.

This evolutionary view concurs with neurological studies in seeing altruism as enlightened self-interest. This construction covers co-operation and generosity within families and kinship groups, as well as more abstract acts such as anonymous charity donation.

But, you might say, nature offers examples – such as the cross-species altruism cited at the start of this essay – of what looks suspiciously like genuine, unself-interested decency. Humans, too, seem capable of authentic, Ghandi-esque altruism, undertaken without the possibility of genetic benefit, peer-admiration or payback.

The materialist’s rebuttal here is that the feel-good after-glow of good works, altruism’s chemical reward, means such acts are still selfish; a selfishness that is only intensified by this illusion of selflessness. Maybe they’re right, although the ultimate effect of such a view is, by lessening the feeling of goodness, to diminish that feel-good payback and so, ultimately, to make morality into mere survivalism.

Yet, even at that level, it seems naive in the extreme to expect – or even hope for – altruism on any scale or in any sustained way from the modern human. As Al Gore and others have pointed out in the climate change debate, collective decision-making on the necessary scale (that is, global) is unprecedented, made that much more improbable by the element of self-sacrifice.

Yet this is precisely what our long-term survival demands. Government is fundamental to any climate change solution, since many decisions can only be taken at an overall level. But governments everywhere are paralysed by the very democracy – the very need to please – that gives them power. (It may be that Obama is an exception to this, that his appeal to people’s nobler selves marks him, historically, as the first sign of real change. Time will tell.)

But this change must start with the self, the voter, and the likelihood that humanity may soon be forced, just a tad, to grow up. And this is where the gene could save our bacon. Many would argue that if an altruism gene does exist, and is featured on our genome, it must be pretty damned recessive. But the question then is, where’s the on-switch and how do we flip it?


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