Altruism & Social Selection

If you are not disturbed by the problem of altruism, you have not been paying attention. For me, reading Williams and then Dawkins shook my moral core. Could it be that all my apparently most moral acts were actually just in the service of my genes? Were moral convictions just subtle ways to manipulate others? Dick Alexander let me read an early draft of "The Biology of Moral Systems" and I have been unable to let go of the problem ever since. It is inevitably correct that traits are selected out if they increase the reproductive success of others more than's own genes.    But there are 10 guilty neurotics for every sociopath, and many of them lie in bed each night wondering if, perhaps, they might have accidentally insulted someone or done something selfish. This is the one area that George and I never came to agree on, despite scores of hours of conversation. We agreed that group selection is a non-starter for explaining human altruism, but he took the core principle so literally that he believed that anything shaped by natural selection had to be inherently evil, or at least irredeemably selfish.

I have taken three approaches to the problem.

The first, in the article "Why so many people with selfish genes are pretty nice..." explores the trauma that these ideas have unleashed, and people's psychological responses to them.

The second is a long exploration of commitment strategies, not nice personal commitment, but the kind of commitment strategies economists study, including mutually assured destruction. After doing a book on this and continuing some research, I concluded that commitment offers a limited explanation for some special kinds of altruism, but it did not offer the more general kind of explanation I wanted.

Finally, I kept going back to a pair of papers by Mary Jane West-Eberhard about social selection. I think her ideas provide much of the solution people have been looking for. The short version is that just as male peacocks have large tails because this makes them preferred mates, most humans have extraordinary prosocial tendencies that make them preferred as social partners. The preference and the trait may co-evolve and escalate because the winners get a big payoff. All of us end up hugely concerned with what others think about us, an evolutionary explanation for the prevalence of social phobia. I am doing my best to bring Mary Jane's ideas to bear on the problem of altruism in humans, and the power of her idea seems to be increasingly recognized. Dick Alexander was very close to this idea, and Mark Flinn, Sarah Hrdy, and Chris Boehm are, with many others, developing the line of thinking further.  See the new Evolutionary Behavioral Ecology by Westneat and Fox for a detailed treatment. 

Why is group selection still such a problem? BBS, 1994 and sadly still relevant. 

Nesse RM: Why so many people with selfish genes are pretty nice--Except for their hatred of The Selfish Gene. In Alan Grafen and Matt Ridley, The Selfish Gene at 30, Oxford University Press, London, 2006

Nesse RM: Runaway Social Selection for Displays of Partner Value and Altruism, Biological Theory 2 (2): 143-155, 2007.

Nesse RM. Social selection and the origins of culture. In: Schaller M, Heine SJ, Norenzayan A, Yamagishi T, Kameda T, editors. Evolution, culture, and the human mind. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press. p. 137-50, 2010.

Nesse RM. How can evolution and neuroscience help us understand moral capacities? In: Verplaetse J, De Schrijver J, Vanneste S, Braeckman J, editors. The Moral Brain: Essays on the Evolutionary and Neuroscientific Aspects of Morality. New York: Springer Verlag. p. 201-10, 2009.

Nesse, RM (ed.): Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment, Russell Sage Press, New York, 2001. [Book]

Nesse, RM: The evolution of subjective commitment. In Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment, Russell Sage Press, edited by RM Nesse, 2001.

Nesse, RM: Commitment in the clinic, In Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment, Russell Sage Press, edited by RM Nesse, 2001.

Nesse, RM: The Future of commitment (draft-see book for final), In Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment, Russell Sage Press, edited by RM Nesse, 2001.