Date: Aug. 30, 2003
From: "Herbert Gintis"  
Subject: Re: [evol-psych] Kin Selection vs. Group Selection?

Phil Roberts, Jr. (quoting DAwkins):

>    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)
> Herbert Gintis wrote:
>> 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?:

I don't know when he wrote this, but it's probably pretty old. 
With new evidence, we sometimes change our views. I sure do.

But in fact, I think Hamilton shows a different view even in his 
1970-75 writings, such as: William D. Hamilton, "Selfish and Spiteful 
Behaviour in an Evolutionary Model", Nature 228 (1970):1218-1220, 
and   Innate Social Aptitudes of Man: an Approach from Evolutionary 
Genetics", in Robin Fox (eds.) Biosocial Anthropology (New York: John Wiley 
and Sons, 1975):115-132.

>>   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:
>> 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?

         I quite disagree with this.  Prosocial emotions for instance 
(empathy, shame, spite, etc.) are clearly the product of gene-culture 
coevolution, not simply culture impressed on a genetic "blank slate." We 
are genetically predisposed to incorporate generosity and altruism into our 
behavior, and many of those humans who do not (e.g., sociopaths) are likely 
lacking in some of the genetic machinery for prosociality.

> 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?

We cannot agree on this, either. Culture and nature conspire to 
create as many self-sacrificing individuals as self-sacrifice. This is a 
point I tried to make in: Herbert Gintis, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to 
Altruism: Genes, Culture, and theInternalization of Norms", Journal of 
Theoretical Biology 220,4

> 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:

Tinkering with models??? That's what you call scientific research? 
Tinkering with models is science, or at least an important part of science. 
And the models are ways to explain new evidence. New evidence is important 
in science.

Herb Gintis

Herbert Gintis
Emeritus Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts
External Faculty, Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM
Recent papers are posted on my web site.

Get Game Theory Evolving (Princeton, 2000) at

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