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Braunholtz: Help yourself " help others

Alan Braunholtz
Vail CO, Colorado

Christmas is as good a time as any to consider “good will to all men”. Helping others when there’s no personal reward is altruism. Biologists D.S Wilson and E.O Wilson are changing the way socio-biologists think about altruism and evolution. A quote sums up their viewpoint. “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

There’s a lot of commentary in socio-biology, dating back to Charles Darwin. His genius and ideas have been so misrepresented over time that it’s worth remembering that social Darwinism has little to do with him. One Herbert Spencer promoted the slogan “survival of the fittest” and latched onto the Lamarckian idea that evolution strived to be progressive, with each step an improvement and the final goal, mankind.

Actually Spencer saw the desired end state as white male-dominated western civilization. Understandably the business class of the U.S. in the 1880s liked this and thought that if such evolution was progressive then nothing should be done to hinder it. Unfettered “robber baron” capitalism was in and social safety nets out. Nasty things like eugenics and militarism also crept in as well. Darwin totally rejected these ideas so really this movement should be known as social Spencerism.

In his book “The Descent of Man’ Charles Darwin ponders ” and solves ” a basic problem of evolution and groups. How does altruistic behavior evolve if it puts the individual doing it at a disadvantage to those less helpful to others? He describes such actions that help society at a personal cost in terms of morality and concludes that the tribe with the highest morality will have an “immense advantage.”

He’s effectively advocating group selection as an important evolutionary force i.e., the group that works best together will beat out more selfish societies. Social biologist of the 1960s didn’t agree, though. They believed the individual was most important.

Their theories maintained that altruistic behavior would be bypassed else that individual would “waste” energy on others while the free loading members of his group wouldn’t.

Any time a human helped others it had to be explained only in terms of advantage to that individual and his genes ” it had to benefit him/her more than anyone else.

The 1960s social biologists put themselves through contortions to explain away any apparently altruistic behavior. When bees sacrifice themselves for the good of the hive it’s because of kin selection; they all share a lot of the same genes so from that point of view it makes sense to lose one copy (a bee) if it saves several other copies. Evolutionary game theory and selfish gene theory are other arguments designed to explain apparently altruistic behavior strictly in terms of advantage to that individual.

This idea of a “selfish gene” always made me uncomfortable. The idea of a world driven at the base level by a “me first and only” command is depressing ” especially around the holidays. D.S Wilson and E.O. Wilson’s arguments have made me a lot happier and make more sense.

For example some altruistic behaviors can’t be explained away. Termites behave much the same as bees ” each colony is really a super organism ” but termites aren’t as closely related to each other as bees. Termite colonies exist because the colony that works together the best beats out the one down the road.

Human empires originated from areas where different groups competed. Competition encouraged cooperation within each group and the one that worked together the best won and expanded.

The mere fact that we see so much altruistic behavior in the animal kingdom should’ve shot some doubts towards “the individual is the pivotal point in evolution” thinkers.

Historically it looks like these successful empires eventually undermine themselves when the “selfish gene” kicks in. People start to freeload, dominate and exploit others, split into smaller groups that oppose each other. With globalization, nuclear proliferation, etc. we may be approaching the time when all of humanity is connected enough to be seen as one super group. Selfishness will help you succeed within that group, it always has ” but if the whole group or ecosystem collapses, being the most successful individual on a cinder doesn’t do you a whole lot of good.

It seems the Christmas message of Santa ringing his bell for charity outside a supermarket is better for us ” as a group ” than expecting Santa to dump a load of free loot for you while you sleep.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a biweekly column for the Daily. Send comments or questions to editor@vaildaily.com..


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