Date: Aug. 29, 2003
From: "Phil Roberts, Jr." 
Subject: Re: [evol-psych] Kin Selection vs. Group Selection?

Herbert Gintis wrote:

  > Phil Roberts, Jr. wrote:
  >>   Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a
  >>   society in which individuals cooperate generously
  >>   and unselfishly towards a common good, you can
  >>   expect little help from biological nature.  Let
  >>   us try to teach generosity and altruism, because
  >>   we are born selfish.  Let us understand what our
  >>   selfish genes are up to, because we may then at
  >>   least have the chance to upset their designs,
  >>   something that no other species has ever aspired
  >>   to.  (Dawkins)
  >         Well, Dawkins is just wrong here, I think.

I assume this would include a difference of opinion with
Hamilton's assessment of Dawkins as well.  Correct?:

     Even without intention to be snobbish, reading a popular book in a
     field close to one's research interests almost forces one to tally
     errors; this example misapplied, that point left ambiguous, that idea
     wrong, abandoned years ago.  This book [The Selfish Gene] had an almost
     clean sheet from me......its biology as a whole is firmly the right way
     up and its questionable statements are at least undogmatic (W. D.

  > Here is something I
  > and my coauthors (Sam Bowles, Ernst Fehr, and Rob Boyd) wrote about this
  > (and related) statements, in Evolution & Human Behavior earlier this year:
  >   The explanatory power of inclusive fitness theory and reciprocal
  >   altruism convinced a generation of researchers that what appears to be
  >   altruism--- personal sacrifice on behalf of others---is really just
  >   long-run self-interest. Richard Dawkins, for instance, struck a
  >   responsive chord when, in The Selfish Gene, he confidently asserted ``We
  >   are 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.''

The zoo at feeding time comes to mind, but you have left out
the excruciatingly important proviso, for me at least, that when it
comes to homo sapiens, all bets are off:

    As an enthusiastic Darwinian, I have been dissatisfied with
    explanations which my fellow-enthusiasts have offered for
    human behaviour.  They have tried to look for 'biological
    advantages' in various attributes of human civilization.  For
    instance, tribal religion has been seen as a mechanisms for
    solidifying group identity, valuable for a pack-hunting
    species whose individuals rely on cooperation to catch large
    and fast prey.  Frequetnly the evolutionary preconception in
    terms of which such theories are framed is implicitly group-
    selectionist, but it is possible to rephrase the theories
    in terms of orthodox gene selection.  Man may well have
    spent large portions of the last several million years
    living in small kin groups.  Kin selection and selection in
    favour of reciprocal altruism may have acted on human genes
    to produce many of our basic psychological attributes and
    tendencies.  These ideas are plausible as far as they go,
    but I find they do not begin to square up to the formidable
    challenge of explaining culture, cultural evolution, and the
    immense differences between human cultures around the world,
    from the utter selfishness of the Ik of Uganda, as described
    by Colin Turnbull, to the gentle altruism of Margaret Mead's

    PRINCIPLES.  The argument I shall advance,
    surprising as it may seem coming from the author of the
    earlier chapters, is that, for an understanding of the
    evolution of modern man, WE MUST BEGIN BY THROWING OUT THE
    enthusiastic Darwinian, but I think Darwinism is too big a
    theory to be Confined to the narrow context of the gene.  The
    gene will enter my thesis as an analogy, NOTHING MORE.
    (Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 205). (emphasis mine)

  > Dawkins allows for morality in social life, but it must be socially
  > imposed on a fundamentally selfish agent.

  >  ``Let us try to teach generosity and altruism,'' he advises,
  >  ``because we are born selfish.''

I assume you agree with me that if human culture were
eradicated and human organisms were to somehow survive the calamity that
it would be many millennia before prudence, let alone prosociality, would
reappear on the planet.  So aren't we both in agreement with Dawkins,
at least on the point that generosity and altruism are cultural inventions
totally dependent on culture for their transmission?  And aren't
we also in agreement that, whatever has led to these developments,
nature is engaged in a relentless crusade to eliminate self
sacrifice, throttling every 9/11 terrorist and self-incinerating
Buddhist monk she can get her hands on?

  > Yet even social morality, according to R. D. Alexander, the most
  > influential ethicist working in the Williams-Hamilton tradition, can
  > only superficially transcend selfishness. In The Biology
  > of Moral Systems (1987), Alexander asserts:
  > ``ethics, morality, human conduct, and the human psyche are to be
  >   understood only if societies are seen as collections of individuals
  >   seeking their own self-interest'' (p. 3).

UNDERSTOOD as collections of individuals, according to the Hamiltonian
models of natural selection.  But I've always read Dawkins as arguing
that human nature outstrips our understanding -- that we are that most
precious of all scientific commodities, a full blown scientific
enigma -- one which may well serve as the genesis for the next
quantum leap in scientific understanding provided someone can
unearth an unquestioned assumption or two  (e.g., the assumption
that rational creatures can be relied upon to pursue their own
self-interest without justification):

   Special concern for one's own future would be selected by
   evolution: Animals without such concern would be more likely
   to die before passing on their genes.  Such concern would
   remain, as a natural fact, even if we decided that it was not
   justified.  By thinking hard about the arguments, we might
   be able briefly to stun this natural concern.  But it would
   soon revive...  The fact that we have this attitude cannot
   therefore be a reason for thinking it justified.  Whether
   it is justified [i.e. rational] is an open question, waiting
   to be answered (Derek Parfit, 'Reasons and Persons').

  > In a similar state of explanatory euphoria, Ghiselin claims

  > ``No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society, once
  >   sentimentalism has been laid aside. What passes for cooperation
  >   turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation...
  >   Scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed'' (p. 247).

This is what our formal models PREDICT, but its hardly what has been
OBSERVED in man and phylogenetically proximal species.  Unless I'm
taking this out of context, this author has gotten so ga ga over natural
selection that its become their religion.

  > However, recent experimental research has revealed forms of human
  > behavior involving interaction among unrelated individuals that cannot
  > be explained in terms of self-interest. One such trait, which we call
  > strong reciprocity
  > (Gintis Journal of Theoretical Biology, 2000) , is a predisposition to
  > cooperate with others, and to punish those who violate the norms of
  > cooperation, at personal cost, even when it is implausible to expect
  > that these costs will be repaid either by others or at a later date.

Perhaps you have succeeded where so many have failed.  But I'm
a tad bit skeptical, as I'm sure you will understand.
I don't think this problem is going to be resolved by tinkering
with the models, and I don't think it comes even close to the
sort of radical restart Dawkins has in mind:

    PRINCIPLES.  (Dawkins)

Then too, I have my own idea I have been trying to
promote in which many of the features observed in our species are
the result of nature having to confront emerging psychodynamic laws
that have begun to USURP the older mechanics of natural selection,
and in which such apparently maladaptive features as self-sacrifice
have merely been TOLERATED by mother nature as a necessary premium
for having a rational species to do her bidding.  Unfortunately,
its been a pretty tough slog so far, as your own dismissal (in
private communication) of my humble attempt to develop such a
theme (URL'd below) has merely reconfirmed:

     But as brains became more highly developed, they took over more
     and more of the actual policy decisions, using tricks like
     learning and simulation in doing so.  The logical conclusion to
     this trend, not yet reached in any species, would be for the
     genes to give the survival machine a single overall policy
     instruction: do whatever you think best to keep us alive.



      Why We Turned Like Captain Kirk Instead of Mr. Spock
          The Psychodynamics of Genetic Indeterminism