How does evolutionary psychology account for altruism?


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Paul Wilson Profile
Paul Wilson answered

Like everything else in evolution there are many parts to this. Evolution is a messy set of useful characterisitics that hang around because they work (help us survive and reproduce), and the ones that make us nice to each other are no exception. At the most basic and mathematically sound level, it follows that we are going to develop facilities to identify those that appear (very important, that word!) to be more related to us than others, because they share more of our genes, and hence helping them helps increase the number of those shared genes (which is what it is all about). At the most extreme level this leads to animals self-sacrificing for their brethren (some insects even give up reproducing for that end, as a hive or nest consists of individuals with identical gene sets to the queen). In humans it leads us to self-sacrifice in war to protect those that 'appear' to be more closely related, and for parents to do the same for their apparent (again, important!) offspring.

Then for social animals (like us) there is reciprocal altruism, where we remember who has done us a favour and return it, so that we can gain a reputation and likewise benefit. This is partly why we developed such big brains, to remember all the favours and betrayals!

The most human set of characteristics though are those that enable us to function as a unrelated group, where our individual (and hence our genes) survival is best served operating as a team to compete with other teams as well as the wider environment. This is the basis of nationalism, religion, tribalism and racism, as well as the more attractive characteristics of tolerance, socialism, charity, empathy etc. What makes this so hard to understand is the non-related bit, which is why I emphasised the 'appears' and 'apparent' above, as these facilities are so powerful we use them just when we feel 'related' or 'different', or when manipulative politicians, warlords or priests press the buttons, because our detection systems are so imperfect.

A good starting point for finding out more is the book 'The Origins of Virtue' by Matt Ridley. Hope this helps!

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Paul Wilson
Paul Wilson commented
Haha! Why feel guilty? If something works for you (reputation, status), AND makes you feel good on a more emotional level, it is win-win. We feel like doing good (or bad) because that's how evolution made us, and it is we not our genes that finally choose to follow the good emotions or the bad - that's what makes us human. You didn't have to choose to volunteer!
Yo Kass
Yo Kass commented
Yeah that does makes sense - although the guilt could even be another layer of biological conditioning.

Being worried that my actions will be exposed or interpreted as self-serving could actually be an auto-defence against social mistrust being aimed at me by the rest of the herd.

I'm definitely going to read up more on this - I feel a lot more comfortable with the idea that there's a rational biological motive behind the decisions we make.
Paul Wilson
Paul Wilson commented
You are bang on the money here from what I understand - I did think your guilt needed more thought! It fits in with Trivers - we have got very good at sensing other peoples motivations and judging their honesty. Your guilt may be that you are concerned that others may spot it, and that would devalue your status gain. You have to be convinced yourself before you can convince others... That may be why some have an 'instinctive' distrust of self-promoting 'do-gooders' - too much of a good thing is worth being suspicious oo.
Much of this is still speculation of course, although there is much painstaking research going on.

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