Evolution and altruism

In this episode, a question that haunted Charles Darwin: if natural selection boils down to survival of the fittest, how do you explain why one creature might stick its neck out for another?

The standard view of evolution is that living things are shaped by cold-hearted competition. And there is no doubt that today\’s plants and animals carry the genetic legacy of ancestors who fought fiercely to survive and reproduce. But in this hour, we wonder whether there might also be a logic behind sharing, niceness, kindness … or even, self-sacrifice. Is altruism an aberration, or just an elaborate guise for sneaky self-interest? Do we really live in a selfish, dog-eat-dog world? Or has evolution carved out a hidden code that rewards genuine cooperation?

via The Good Show – Radiolab.

I haven’t listened to this yet, although I’m familiar with the standard views about how altruism arises in evolution.  (I do plan to listen to it eventually, but I listen to podcasts on my lunch walks and I have an epic backlog right now.)  I’m posting it here now because I think some of  you might find it interesting.

Evolution is usually thought to mean survival of the fittest with a fierce struggle between individuals.  But we are a social species, whose evolved survival strategy involves working together in groups, in societies.  I’ve read anthropological speculation that the development of our large brains might have been intimately tied up in our social awareness skills, out ability to function well within a culture.

The above doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re altruistic because we’re sneakily selfish in a long term strategic manner.  What it does mean is that we have evolved pro-social instincts that give us powerful motivations to be altruistic, to help our family, friends, and comrades.  (It’s not all good news since it also gives us xenophobic instincts as well.)

Of course, the translation between instinct and moral codes is complex.

h/t Machines Like Us

22 thoughts on “Evolution and altruism

  1. The greatest challenges of today are not competition, so why do we continue it? We are beginning to notice I think that competition is hurting us.

    Actually, humans do make sacrifices. However we are not the only species that do so. In fact, it is well-known that a majority of animals perform acts of self-sacrifice for their young. Additionally, there are examples of very complex cooperation efforts by animals and also slots of stories of a animal caring for an animal from a different species.

    Even Darwin was aware of this. In his 1859 book, The Origin of Species, he wrote about his self-doubt: “So wonderful an instinct as that of the hive-bee making its cells will probably have occurred to many readers, as a difficulty sufficient to overthrow my whole theory.”
    ~ Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, p. 233

    Watch these examples of cooperation and altruism:


      1. I am quite sure that humans believe evolutionary changes into being… I am not schooled enough to say so about other species. However, I have a theory that animals too develop beliefs that change their DNA as a matter of that our evolution and theirs is chosen either consciously by active conscious choices or by unconscious beliefs that are defaults based on behaviors. Do beliefs change chemical processes in humans? Yes. Do animals form beliefs (perhaps les consciously)? I think so. Lets not forget that we are a collection of quantum particles that really are not particles. Where then is the collective consciousness kept (permanently)? Some are saying its in DNA. Fine, its a theory. Theories work in all directions. I have some, you have some, our hero role models guys have them. Still, the complexity of how actually that evolution occurs is a mystery.


        1. I’m not aware of any scientific evidence for humans being able to modify our DNA. We may be able to eventually with technology, but doing it by will, I have to express skepticism on.

          That said, culture probably has some effect on evolution in the sense of determining mating success, survival, etc. The higher than average intelligence of European Jews, and lactase tolerance of westerners probably came about from cultural factors.

          On theories, you might consider reading Ethan Siegal’s post on scientific theories that I linked to the other day.


          1. sure – by the short definition of it, a theory is a prediction based on evidence. Based on the known data, theory predictions based on data and observation by science demonstrate that beliefs (conscious and unconscious) change molecular structure. Its also predicted by plenty of spiritualists but I’m not elevating their unscientific predictions to scientific theories. The word theory is also taken by many to mean a consensus, idea, plan, story, or a set of rules as a generalization and (deliberate) non use of the technical meaning by some – or as a common sense meaning by others. So, its probably not a good word to use – but I mean theory by the technical use.


          2. I’ll definitely agree that beliefs modify molecular structure, particularly since beliefs themselves are composed of molecular structures, of the varying strengths of synapses in the brain. The question is whether they modify specific kinds of molecular structures, DNA.

            I’ll backtrack a little bit on my comment above. I forgot about the possible evidence of mice transmitting fears of certain smells to their offspring. Technically that would be belief (a certain smell means danger) altering DNA, if the results hold up. If so, the question would be how far that goes.


          3. its good. I’m not always accurate – but this area is of special interest since it touches on how the material universe is manifest from its source energy. This all began for me when I wanted to know how particles came to be from a big bang of something perhaps microscopic or certainly very tiny any way into a universe. That led me in a few directions – but always was the Schrodinger thought experiment – we observe and therefore there is. I won’t bore you with the whole thirty years of my research and diligence.


          4. I’ll give this as an example: Dawkins might say all living things are descended from a single common ancestor which lived perhaps more than a billon years ago and so all life forms are related. I can’t claim this is untrue because it is a possible reality and it is more possible as it becomes more widely believable. So, my game is in the open now. I hold with that a belief is a practiced observation and that as it becomes more widely supported (held) then it becomes a player in vying in the consensus of reality in the material universe. It makes no great difference to me since the material universe is manifest from its source. The source is not material and therefore maintains non-consensus. Non-being is in fact the higher-reality of form (true reality).


          5. Your view sounds like the ones that consider all reality to be generated by consciousness: idealism, the idea that there is only, ultimately, minds, and everything else is an illusion. Perhaps that’s true, but if so then those illusions can cause me a great deal of suffering if they’re ignored, so I find it productive to treat them like they’re real.

            Personally, I think there is an objective reality, independent of our thought, although we have to be cautious about what we think we know about it. We can only ever know an approximation of that reality, an approximation heavily shaped by our evolved perceptions. 400 years of progress seems to indicate that science can get those approximations closer and closer, or at least more useful. But like the speed of light, we can never attain perfect knowledge.


          6. The universe is real. It just happens to flutter between its source and its manifest nature. Since the particles flutter in and out of energy in their waves of being and because our senses are grossly incapable of noticing the speed of light, we don’t even notice – usually. Some few can sense some fluctuations sometimes. Its real enough. I can’t imagine how exactly it occurs. The filed fluctuates and we know this from physics – how is not known. Spiritualists sometimes “know: this differently and some report having experiences on both side of reality.
            The speed of light is another concept that is applied to our perceptions as if it were a law that transcends the material universe. It only applies within space-time. In fact, experimentation predicts that space-time may be altered – warping it.


  2. Richard Dawkins discusses this at length in The Selfish Gene and other books. His point, I think, (I am not a biologist) is that evolution and competition are between genes, not necessarily between individuals or species. “Survival of the fittest” is a generally unhelpful concept, but one that won’t go away.


    1. Dawkins supplied a philosophical reasoning, not science for this. His idea that the selfish gene competing and be nice to everyone you meet in the brain came to be at odds with each other is very interesting. It isn’t something that can be tested as far as I am read on it.


      1. I don’t think Dawkins approaches this from a philosophical perspective. He is looking at the physical mechanisms that control how DNA from two parents is cut and spliced during conception. Sex provides a mechanism for mixing up genes (The Selfish Gene contains a detailed discussion about what a gene is from the perspective of this mixing process.)

        There isn’t any conscious competition or cooperation between genes of course. Nature produces a diversity of genetic codes – some live and reproduce, some die. That’s natural selection. It’s an extraordinarily wasteful and inefficient process, but over billions of years it produces remarkable results.


        1. I’ve read some of his work – BUT honestly, I cannot follow some of it – and of course, I therefore must rely heavily on what other biologists say. All of his works raise scientific criticism. Of course also (additionally) creationist jump on this since his work is only weakly defensible as science. Science must produce not only a perdition but also the tested reality. In the case for Dawkins works, there are criticisms and not proof. Additionally there are competing theories (of which all are also not tested).
          Even his philosophical point – Dawkins contends that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that religious faith is a delusion—”a fixed false belief” makes not enough sense. How can there even be a “false” belief? A belief is a belief. Beliefs are practiced observation. Observation creates our reality. No belief then is false – they compete perhaps in a shared version of reality – a collective agreement that comes about (consciously and unconsciously) because it exists first in the non-material realm of the energy that is manifest as the particles that comprise our material universe.
          Dawkins’ work is not impressive, I think.


          1. Well, OK, I suppose it is true that no belief can be true or false. They are just beliefs. But that doesn’t get you very far!

            When Dawkins sticks to science and talks about DNA and genes his writing is a statement of mainstream science. It’s only controversial if you reject the consensus view on how reproduction operates. DNA, chromosomes and genetics are very well understood parts of mainstream science these days.

            Where Dawkins gets controversial is when he steps into theological debate. But of course, anyone who steps into theological debate is bound to be controversial, because there is no consensus view.


          2. DNA, chromosomes and genetics are understood only as that they exist and change – most all of the actual mechanics are unknown – Dawkins did provide some ideas (pseudoscience) and some science that further some theories but he isn’t even a significant contributor to advances in understanding this. His work is mostly philosophical, by my view; being as thorough as I have been. I appreciate his philosophies as a contrast to my own. His scientific work is so weakly stated that it isn’t useful.


          3. If you mean that his books summarize science, I must say, I cannot comment on his books, I really haven’t done much with his books:
            The Selfish Gene (1976), “all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities”.
            I think not – but can’t discuss this work.
            The Extended Phenotype (1982), “the process whereby replicators out-propagate each other”
            I have no thought on this and haven’t even looked its way.


          4. I think beliefs can be false.

            We have to distinguish between two statements:
            1. I hold belief X.
            That statement can be true or false. Either I hold belief X or I don’t. Certainly if I hold a belief, then I think that belief to be true, otherwise I don’t really hold the belief. (There are fierce debates about whether doubt can amount to a middle state.)

            2. Belief X is true.
            That statement can also be true or false but isn’t equivalent to statement 1. It’s possible for X to be false but for me to truthfully think it is true, even if my belief is false.

            Of course, evaluating statement 2 gets into the whole subject of epistemology.


          5. I think that beliefs can be non-factors in the consensus. As to partly held, you make an excellent observation. Since this is possible, it too is true. Whatever is possible is true. This is the basis for our observer reality (duality reality). As to the pre-manifest reality, there may only be one and if you want to go there in discussion, let me know; but you already cautioned that you don’t believe in a creator.


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