Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Altruism Paradox: The Surprising Confluence of Christian Anthropology and Evolutionary Biology

Altruism is one of the most interesting evolutionary puzzles. Mild forms of “altruistic” behavior have been observed in several distantly related taxa. Some of this has been cleverly and definitively explained on purely Darwinian principles[1] but some of it still seems a little ‘hand waving-ish’[2]…particularly when the theories are applied to humans acting altruistically towards non-relatives.[3] The problem is that pure altruism is not an “evolutionary stable strategy” (ESS).[4] But one of the solutions that evolutionary biologists and behavioral ecologists have floated sounds shockingly familiar to those of us who have spent much time in the ancient texts that compose the normative documents of Christianity.

The story goes like this. Altruism is better than pure competition on the species scale, but selection does not happen on that scale. Advantageous alleles are selected based on the survival and reproductive benefits to the individual. Therefore, in order for altruism to be selected, the bearers of altruist genes have to benefit, on the whole, more than it costs them.[5] This is evolutionarily unstable because cheaters would accept benefits of the altruists, not take the risks, and eventually ‘win’ pushing the altruistic genes from the population. Therefore, altruism requires some sort of ‘enforcement’ on the ‘population’[6] scale. There are some interesting examples of enforcement in non-human altruists, but the really interesting hypothesis is that humans use ‘guilt’ to enforce the terms of altruism on the tribal scale.

But, even with guilt enforcing altruism, it is not an ESS. Therefore, the successful altruistic strategy is that of the ‘subtle cheater.’ In each generation altruistic systems disproportionately propagate individuals that cheat just enough to have a survival or reproductive advantage but not so much that they incur the penalties of the enforcement mechanism.

This is all pretty plausible (especially for non-human species). But the really interesting insight is how ‘subtle cheating’ works out in human populations. If our enforcement mechanism is built into our psychological and sociological hardware and software (guilt[7]) what does it mean to be a subtle cheater? Who do I need to deceive?


And that is the shocking and thrilling detail. If human altruism is self enforced through genetic and environmental imprints on our operating systems, getting away with subtle cheating REQUIRES “self deception.”[8] Human success is largely due to our altruistic tendencies…but only if those tendencies include “subtle cheating” which, given our enforcement mechanisms, require “self deception.”

Um, Really? So, let me get this straight. Humans work best in cooperative community. But there is something fundamental in each one of us that will always try to get more than we give. And in order to live with ourselves and our seemingly universal need to perceive ourselves as “a good person”[9] we all engage in self deception to convince ourselves that the real cheater is ‘the other.’ It seems like I have heard that somewhere before. Allow me to introduce: Christian anthropology.

The fundamental premise of Christian anthropology is that we are valuable beyond measure and designed to reflect the altruistic character of our maker but deeply broken and have an insurmountable entropy towards self interested behavior. We describe this causally with the narrative of the fall. Regardless of whether or not you hypothesize a historical Adam and Eve[10] the fall is the process by which we not only tarnish our immense capacity for beauty and generosity with the fundamental entropy of self interest, such that the former merely punctuates than the latter…but then we lie to ourselves about it.

All of this could lead us to argue (with a smile, and hopefully in a cheeky rather than a douchey way) that Christians are more in touch with reality, as specified by behavioral ecology. The Christian operating system which is self aware of our tendency of self deception and our tendency towards subtle cheating, makes it an evolutionary unstable strategy…but also gives it a huge epistemic advantage.[11] But, if Jesus was to talk in the language of behavioral ecology, I think the sermon on the mount might have included something like:

"Blessed are those who are aware of their self deception, it is the first step in actual self forgetfulness.”

Which is actually just my paraphrase of:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[12]

This post was prepared while listening to The Sufferer and the Witness by Rise Against

[1] The classic example is eusocial insects who turned out to be haplodiploid, which makes sisters more closely related than they would be to their own daughters, making celibate cooperative labor the most effective way to get genetic material into future generations.
[2] My personal favorite is the argument that we have the impulse to save a drowning unrelated child because the act of heroism may be observed by one of the victim’s hot relatives who would then have sex with the rescuer providing a mechanism where the risk is overweighed by the genetic payoff in the long term, selecting for risk taking altruists. If you think about the kind of selective pressure it would take to preference that genotype as broadly as it exists in our species…that would take a lot of extremely grateful sisters.
[3] Adoption of unrelated children cannot be seen as anything other than an ‘evolutionary trap.’
[4] An ESS is a strategy that is resistant to ‘invaders’ or ‘cheaters’. For example, it was hypothesized that the huge, seasonal gatherings of birds, like those that soil our cars at the U-mall or the Arc parking lot – were a type of self-regulating behavior. The birds were taking a ‘census’ of sorts and then would regulate the number of eggs they laid accordingly in order self-regulate and keep the population size proportional to the resources (under the carrying capacity). This has been widely discredited, however, as evolutionarily unstable…because cheaters would eventually take over. If everyone else is self regulating, a few birds that do not would compose a disproportionate portion of each successive cohort, until they quickly took over. Dawkins calls this “subversion from within.” Therefore, most ‘self regulation’ hypotheses have been jettisoned for resource or predator regulation.
[5] i.e. Alturism must be fundamentally self interested.
[6] Tribal.
[7] Note: Police do not count as enforcing altruism. They reduce the ferocity of our competition but do not require cooperation. You could make a case that liberal fiscal policy enforces altruism…but I will argue in a couple of posts that this is simply an outworking of guilt.
[8] All of the phrases I am using in quotes are not my own reading of this…they are the actual language of the theory from my coursework on behavioral ecology at UC Davis…from phenomenal Prof Sih who is one of the rare professors who is uncommonly brilliant AND a thrilling lecturer.
[9] I totally buy the idea as guilt as an altruism enforcing mechanism. There is nothing as ubiquitous as the idea that ‘I am a good person.’ After Imus was publically called out about his comments on the Rutgers woman’s basket ball team he said “I am a good person who did a bad thing.” After Jim Belushi died, someone said “He was a good man and a bad boy.” We all have this compelling need to self perceive as ‘basically a good person.’ And may be no idea that people will fight harder for despite mounting evidence to the contrary…regardless how much violence we have to do to the word ‘good’ or even ‘person.’ Before I was a Christian, there was nothing about the Christian worldview I found more repulsive than the assertion that I was not a good person. Now there is no insight I find more pragmatically helpful.
[10] I do (as the Homo Sapien ancestors that were contemporary with Australopithecine), but I don’t think you have to. And it is mostly a non-issue because it is non-falsifiable. But what is clear about the first three chapters of Genesis is that it is not the whole story. It has a fundamental pedagogical agenda. So I am more than happy to allow the scientific process to fill in the estimable gaps. Regardless of whether the fall happened in a cosmic moment (which I tend to believe) or over evolutionary time, it is the process by which humans, a special creation in the image of God, traded that image for an evolutionarily stable strategy. (Footnote to the footnote: I am working on a post about the Battle Star Galactica finale…if that seems like a non sequiter – you didn’t see it).
[11]Please note: I am not now, nor have I ever argued that Christians are, therefore, ‘better’ than those who do not go in for the Christian narrative. In fact I have argued often (here and here) that the logic of the Christian story gives the counter-intuitive result that Christians are, on the whole, less moral than their non-Christian neighbors…and that this is exactly what you would expect if it was true.
[12] Matthew 5:3

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