Generosity leads to evolutionary success

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With new insights into the classical game theory match-up known as the "Prisoner's Dilemma," University of Pennsylvania biologists offer a mathematically based explanation for why cooperation and generosity have evolved in nature.
 

Their work builds upon the seminal findings of economist John Nash, who advanced the field of game theory in the 1950s, as well as those of computational biologist William Press and physicist-mathematician Freeman Dyson, who last year identified a new class of strategies for succeeding in the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Postdoctoral researcher Alexander J. Stewart and associate professor Joshua B. Plotkin, both of Penn's Department of Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences, examined the outcome of the Prisoner's Dilemma as played repeatedly by a large, evolving population of players. While other researchers have previously suggested that cooperative strategies can be successful in such a scenario, Stewart and Plotkin offer mathematical proof that the only strategies that succeed in the long term are generous ones. They report their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesthe week of Sept. 2.

"Ever since Darwin," Plotkin said, "biologists have been puzzled about why there is so much apparent cooperation, and even flat-out generosity and altruism, in nature. The literature on game theory has worked to explain why generosity arises. Our paper provides such an explanation for why we see so much generosity in front of us."

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31 COMMENTS

  1. Wouldn’t those findings be bleedin’ obvious to anyone. Social groups living in difficult conditions, such as those we’d evolved in, would only survive with huge amounts of cooperation. A group made up of selfish individuals all trying to survive at the cost of others wouldn’t survive as a group and hence neither would its genes.

    • In reply to #1 by PG:

      Wouldn’t those findings be bleedin’ obvious to anyone. Social groups living in difficult conditions, such as those we’d evolved in, would only survive with huge amounts of cooperation. A group made up of selfish individuals all trying to survive at the cost of others wouldn’t survive as a group and hence neither would its genes.

      That statement reveals a misunderstanding of some basics of biology. Groups don’t replicate, individuals do. In the early days of Darwinism a lot of people didn’t understand this and there was lots of theorizing about how organisms had this trait or that because it was good for the overall species but that is almost never the case. One of Prof. Dawkins most important contributions was The Selfish Gene which really helped clarify for biologists and the rest of us how that stuff actually works.

      Which is not to say that there is no evidence from biology to explain altruism. Far from it. There are things like reciprocal altruism and kin selection that explain a lot of altruistic behavior. Also, for some animals that are almost clones of each other such as termites group selection does make sense, although in those cases it really reduces to kin selection, it just turns out that the kin are huge colonies. Also, there are some researchers like E.O. Wilson who are still trying to massage group selection theories so that they can make sense. I won’t get into that because the math is a bit over my head and it’s all rather controversial. The main point is biology has a lot to say about altruism but no it’s not at all obvious or intuitive and research like this is quite valuable.

      • In reply to #3 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #1 by PG:

        Wouldn’t those findings be bleedin’ obvious to anyone. Social groups living in difficult conditions, such as those we’d evolved in, would only survive with huge amounts of cooperation. A group made up of selfish individuals all trying to survive at the cost of others wouldn’t…

        But groups are made up of individuals who are probably related? Isn’t this the reasoning behind ‘tribal loyalty’?

        • In reply to #12 by Nitya:

          But groups are made up of individuals who are probably related? Isn’t this the reasoning behind ‘tribal loyalty’?

          What I was specifically objecting to was this statement:

          “A group made up of selfish individuals all trying to survive at the cost of others wouldn’t survive as a group and hence neither would its genes.”

          Of course in all these things it depends how we define things like “group” in that sentence. But the implication to me was an argument that a species of cooperative animals would do better than the same species if they were all non-cooperative and therefor cooperative genes always win out. That is false. If anything it’s the opposite. In general because selection works on individuals rather than on groups there is always strong incentive for non-cooperators to emerge in a population of cooperators.

          Understanding things like tribal loyalty is complex and at least from what I know there really isn’t one clear explanation for something that complex yet. I agree it’s partly kin selection because the people in the tribe tend to be highly inter-related. It’s also obviously reciprocal altruism because the tribe members get a lot from being in the tribe and to some extent how much they do get is driven by how much they contribute. Whether it can all be understood that way or whether you need some other concepts is IMO an open question. I think someone like E.O. Wilson would also say that group or multi-level selection also plays a role but people like Pinker and Dawkins think he’s wrong.

          But whatever is going on it’s not a generalized group selection that says cooperative groups always do better so cooperative genes must always win out over selfish ones, that is clearly false.

  2. “It quickly became clear to the Penn biologists that extortion strategies wouldn’t do well if played within a large, evolving population because an extortion strategy doesn’t succeed if played against itself.”

    “The fact that there are extortion strategies immediately suggests that, at the other end of the scale, there might also be generous strategies,” Stewart said. “You might think being generous would be a stupid thing to do, and it is if there are only two players in the game, but, if there are many players and they all play generously, they all benefit from each other’s generosity.”

    “Our paper shows that no selfish strategies will succeed in evolution,” Plotkin said. “The only strategies that are evolutionarily robust are generous ones”

    Not that sensible people need it, but doesn’t this look like scientific evidence in support of single-payer health care? Everyone pays in- everyone gets covered because everyone is subject to the luck of the draw of decrepitude in old age, genetic predispositions, mishaps etc. (except elective hazardous behaviour – smoking, extreme sports etc.)

    • In reply to #2 by godsbuster:

      Not that sensible people need it, but doesn’t this look like scientific evidence in support of single-payer health care?

      I think it’s a mistake to frame single payer as something we do out of generosity or because we all share some basic decency. For one thing, it’s a sad fact of life that we don’t all share it, there are some people who just don’t give a damn and care more about saving a few pennies on their taxes regardless of what it means for others. And for another, and I guess you said this but I want to emphasize it, you don’t need to justify that way.

      Even for a hard nosed conservative who is only interested in economic arguments about spending and ROI universal healthcare is clearly the better approach. The US spends far more of our GDP on healthcare than other industrialized nations and get’s far worse health care as a result. And those reduced services eventually end up as expenses in terms of people not working, ending up with crippling diseases and being on disability when they didn’t have to, getting treated in the emergency room for free which is far more costly, etc.

      • In reply to #4 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #2 by godsbuster:

        Not that sensible people need it, but doesn’t this look like scientific evidence in support of single-payer health care?

        I think it’s a mistake to frame single payer as something we do out of generosity or because we all share some basic decency. For one thing, it’s a… And those reduced services eventually end up as expenses in terms of people not working…

        Agree on all points. You could also have added it regularly wipes families out economically with incalculable suffering and social costs as a result. But the argument heard often of late from young folk at the prospect of being “forced” to buy into Obamacare is “I’m young and healthy why I should I be forced to buy something I don’t need?”. They falsely think it’s their generosity that is being appealed to to help cover the old and decrepit. Mouth-breathing politicians (wholly owned by the for profit insurance industry who all enjoy “cadillac care” paid for by the taxpayer) like to encourage this illusion of “freedom of choice” being violated.

        Even for a hard nosed conservative who is only interested in economic arguments about spending and ROI universal healthcare is clearly the better approach.

        Theoretically yes, but the 1% who own the country and move in the same circles as, say, insurance co. CEO’s (whose company’s they are invested in plunder an obscene share of the health care pie while least contributing to health) have their wealth ensconced far enough out of reach to not give a damn. They also seem not to give a damn about he country’s infrastructure collapsing. Or how do we explain their complicity in maintaining the status quo?

  3. In reply to #5 by Smill:

    In reply to Red Dog, post 3. I think that frog just loves that mouse; maybe because they both have eyes, and eyes are the mirror of the soul. Altruism is beautiful.

    One of the reasons I’m interested in altruism is that I have a strong intuition that eventually we will find scientific evidence that shows “goodness is it’s own reward”, that for a lot of the ways we define what makes a person a happy and fulfilled person we will find there are correlations with being altruistic and having people to be altruistic toward.

    But I also realize that nature/science doesn’t give a damn about my intuitions and gut feelings turn out to be wrong quite a bit. So as a good scientist I need to be especially critical of ideas that I find intuitively appealing, I’ll have the most bias toward such ideas and hence should subject them to the most critical thought and challenge if I care about separating what is really true from what I want to be true.

  4. I got the following warning from some security software I am using when I went to archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com :
    “This site has attempted to extract image data to a canvas. A canvas can be used to get information from your computer. “

    For what it is worth.

    • In reply to #7 by gooisnotgreat:

      I got the following warning from some security software I am using when I went to archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com :
      “This site has attempted to extract image data to a canvas. A canvas can be used to get information from your computer. “

      For what it is worth.

      FYI, I had never heard of a canvas before but I googled it and it does seem to be a real thing. I could be wrong but I think it’s a capability in HTML5 to take a pixel by pixel recording of the screen and save it via the browser. Which means of course that any program using it can take a snapshot of your screen and potentially send it to a server. It makes sense that you would get such a warning from the software, just as you should get a warning when you run an applet or do other things that have access to the local drive from the browser.

  5. Since the health-care issue was raised, I think it appropriate to observe that the devil-take-the-hindmost attitude of extreme selfishness is not going to be successful, on an evolutionary timescale.

    “Our paper shows that no selfish strategies will succeed in evolution,” Plotkin said. “The only strategies that are evolutionarily robust are generous ones.”

    Interesting that the current US political debacle looks to involve something like the strategy labelled “extortion” in the OP. Roll on its demise.

  6. Don’t we already know about altruism? Aren’t its benefits obvious? Is any of us an island? Aren’t we all interdependent? Isn’t cooperation partly why we’ve been so successful – so far – as a species?

    Surely, I can’t be that far ahead of the curve on this; I thought that everyone knew about this already.

    Well, not the pious of course, they think we need religion.

  7. Red Dog comment 3

    That statement reveals a misunderstanding of some basics of biology. Groups don’t replicate, individuals do.

    Agreed, but individuals replicate within groups and have done, I’d guess, for a very long time in the 7 million years or so that we have been evolving away from our nearest relatives. Realistically we survive in groups and rely on other members of groups, especially when it comes to things like child care.

    Groups where most of the individuals are selfish or altruism is linked purely to kin selection or recipricoty are groups that will be less sucessful as a group and therefore produce less individuals than groups which are more co operative. At an individual level selfishness would only last for so long before the lack of group cohesion would endanger the selfish individuals.

    The main point is biology has a lot to say about altruism but no it’s not at all obvious or intuitive and research like this is quite valuable

    I think that is the most sensible thing to say about it. It is a science in it’s infancy and it needs a lot of working and reworking before we get remotely close to an explanation. But we have clearly evolved traits that elicit altruism. Things like empathy and sympathy for example, have no real other explanations than to make us altruistic to strangers.

    • In reply to #16 by PG:

      Groups where most of the individuals are selfish or altruism is linked purely to kin selection or recipricoty are groups that will be less sucessful as a group and therefore produce less individuals than groups which are more co operative. At an individual level selfishness would only last for so long before the lack of group cohesion would endanger the selfish individuals.

      Sorry, you are just wrong. The hypothesis you are putting forward there is not a new one, it’s an old one and it’s wrong and for you to say that indicates you either haven’t read or you haven’t understood The Selfish Gene.

      Here is an article by Steven Pinker that hopefully explains the issues

      In fact one of the reasons that research like this is so important is that it tells us that arguments such as the one you made (even though they make a lot of intuitive sense) are wrong. Take an intro class on Game Theory, one of the first things you will see is the mathematical reasoning (and it’s pretty simple math, even I get it) that illustrates why if you have a population of cooperators (“doves” in the game theory lingo) that there will be a lot of selection pressure for non-cooperator genes (aka hawks) to emerge.

      And the vast majority of altruistic behavior can be explained by understanding reciprocity and kin selection. Yes, there is some — especially human behavior — that can’t but that is why it’s an interesting question, not because the answer is obvious (cooperative groups do better than non-cooperative) but because the behavior can’t be explained by the theories we have so far and we need some other theory (memes, modular minds, group selection) to understand it.

      BTW, a good example of behavior that IMO clearly can’t be explained by reciprocity or kin selection is Holocaust Rescue. People risked their lives for non-kin who had no chance to reward them. Not only that but in doing so the rescuers took great risk and stepped outside the accepted norms of their peers of the (sick and twisted) society at that time. Here is a great talk on this issue and why it’s still an open question:

      Prof. Craig Palmer: Portrayals of Holocaust Rescue and the Puzzle of Human Altruism

    • In reply to #16 by PG:

      Red Dog comment 3

      That statement reveals a misunderstanding of some basics of biology. Groups don’t replicate, individuals do.

      Agreed, but individuals replicate within groups and have done, I’d guess, for a very long time in the 7 million years or so that we have been evolving away from our neares…

      Sorry, if I was a bit abrupt in some of my previous comments. I realized I should at least summarize the basic argument from Dawkins: From the beginning of The Selfish Gene (p.7). When he says “this explanation” in the following he is referring to the identical argument you are making:

      “This explanation is based on the misconception that I have already mentioned that living creatures evolve to do things ‘for the good of the species’ or ‘for the good of the group’. The quick answer… might go something like this… Even in the group of altruists there will almost certainly be a dissenting minority who refuse to make any sacrifice. If there is just one selfish rebel, prepared to exploit the altruism of the rest, then he by definition, is more likely… to survive and have children…” and Dawkins goes on to say his children will be more likely to be selfish and will also be more successful and have more selfish children, etc. After several generations the group that started out altruistic will end up selfish.

      None of this proves altruism can’t exist, indeed we know it can, it just demonstrates that the intuitive argument that altruism exists because altruistic species do better than selfish ones, in spite of seeming sensible is wrong.

      • In reply to #19 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #16 by PG:

        Red Dog comment 3

        If there is just one selfish rebel, prepared to exploit the altruism of the rest, then he by definition, is more likely… to survive and have children…

        Is he really? The other ones in the group can punish him, maybe even kick him out of the group or kill him.

        Such “altruistic punishment” is actually also a selfish behaviour, that will benefit the punishers in the long run. One type of selfishness can beat another type of selfishness. Perhaps one can say that selfishness that looks altruistic is most often more adaptive than being a rebel.

        Punish others, and they will (if you are successful) behave as you like them to. Also, the other group members will probably like you for it.

        But don’t hesitate to break the rules if nobody will be there to punish you.

        You know, a bit like catholic priests…

        • In reply to #20 by kriton:

          In reply to #19 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #16 by PG:

          Red Dog comment 3

          If there is just one selfish rebel, prepared to exploit the altruism of the rest, then he by definition, is more likely… to survive and have children…

          Is he really? The other ones in the group can punish him, maybe even kic…

          I was quoting from the first pages of Prof. Dawkins book The Selfish Gene. In addition to not liking the Catholic church (I don’t either) Dawkins also has done work as a biologist. Such work isn’t of course nearly as interesting as making dumb jokes about Catholic priests. But if you want something a bit different you might try reading The Selfish Gene and it will clarify the issues. You won’t even have to read the whole book, the misunderstanding I was trying to correct was so fundamental that Dawkins devoted much of the Introduction toward dismissing it. I think he covers it by page 10 or so.

          • That’s a very evasive answer, Red Dog.

            Can you not see that only the last line was a joke? The rest was an attempt to make a serious argument.

            I am claiming that it’s not true that selfish rebels are “by definition” more likely to survive and have more children, because of the mechanism of punishment.

            You have not responded to this. Do you have an answer? Am I right or am I wrong?

          • In reply to #22 by kriton:

            Selfish rebels in a group are guaranteed to prosper at everyone else’s expense unless a countermeasure can override it. But the countermeasure itself can’t be implemented out of sheer altruism, or it wouldn’t appear in the first place (basically, you have to ask why any group-living organism would enforce it). It has to come from a “selfish” genetic justification to make it a worthwhile countermeasure to adopt. This has been found in game theoretic models to be a successful strategy, and it’s discussed in The Selfish Gene.

            So you’re walking right into reciprocal altruism, more specifically the strategy of tit-for-tat that rewards cooperation and punishes cheaters and exploiters. It’s nothing revolutionary. The point here is that mutual benefit is perfectly within the paradigm of the selfish gene theory, because both sides benefit from each other’s help and do better together than on their own. There are plenty of examples in nature of mutually beneficial alliances, such as that between cleaner wrasse and parasite-ridden reef fish, vampire bats within a roost, and buffalo herd members joining in a charge to drive off predators. This is called mutualism, and it can occur between species and within species.

            The point is that some organisms, or more specifically their host genes, have an interest in the survival of the group, just as much as the genes have an interest in the preservation of its host body or cell (for instance, for protection or food or sexual partners). But since the other genes in the other bodies have an interest as well, it’s in everybody’s interest to chip in, negotiate their roles, and divide labour amongst themselves.

            Moreover, nearly all animal “groups” are mostly family-based, which ties right into kin altruism and nepotism. The only exceptions I know of are modern humans, and even then, there are signs that our social arrangements are at least partially influenced by the evolutionary logic of kin altruism, dominance and status hierarchies, and reciprocal altruism.

          • In reply to #23 by Zeuglodon:

            In reply to #22 by kriton:

            Selfish rebels in a group are guaranteed to prosper at everyone else’s expense unless a countermeasure can override it. But the countermeasure itself can’t be implemented out of sheer altruism, or it wouldn’t appear in the first place

            Zeuglodon, thank you for your answer. But there seems to be some misunderstanding here. I’m not trying to argue for group selection, or against selfish gene theory, or anything like that.

            I’m not claiming to say anything revolutionary either.

            I do understand that punishment fits within selfish gene theory, and I was trying to point that out in my first post. Did you see that I wrote:

            Such “altruistic punishment” is actually also a selfish behaviour, that will benefit the punishers in the long run.

            If that was not clear enough, I apologize.

            I was simply saying that it’s not true that selfish rebels are “by definition” more likely to survive and have more children. Because of the mechanism of punishment, some rebels will not be more likely to survive and have more children. Which all fits nicely in selfish gene theory. That’s all.

            Red Dog is claiming that this is “obviously” wrong, which can only mean that punishment can NOT prevent the rebel from being more successful than the other group members.

            I don’t understand at all why that is, and Red Dog is now refusing to discuss any further. If the error was so obvious, it should have been much faster for him to just explain why. But anyway. Perhaps you or anyone else would be so kind?

          • In reply to #27 by kriton:

            In reply to #23 by Zeuglodon:

            In reply to #22 by kriton:

            Selfish rebels in a group are guaranteed to prosper at everyone else’s expense unless a countermeasure can override it. But the countermeasure itself can’t be implemented out of sheer altruism, or it wouldn’t appear in the first place

            Zeugl…

            Well, I can’t speak for Red Dog, though I imagine he thought as I thought and viewed your comment as a criticism of the selfish gene idea that selfishness will overrun altruism, thereby rendering “good of the group” ideas invalid. In which case, this has been a misunderstanding, and I apologize for the digression.

          • In reply to #28 by Zeuglodon:

            In reply to #27 by kriton:

            In reply to #23 by Zeuglodon:

            In reply to #22 by kriton:

            Selfish rebels in a group are guaranteed to prosper at everyone else’s expense unless a countermeasure can override it. But the countermeasure itself can’t be implemented out of sheer altruism, or it wouldn’t appe…

            The more I re-read these comment the more I think we aren’t all disagreeing much if at all. It’s just we are being imprecise in our use of language and thinking there is disagreement where there isn’t. The idea that PG had about punishing cheaters is a good example. I think that was one where (remember I was having a bad day) I kind of threw up my hands and said to myself “but that’s obviously not really altruism!” when instead I should have tried a patient explanation, its not that thinking that cheaters will be punished is wrong, far from it, its understanding where that punishment comes from: genes, memes, or something else or some combination. And realizing that whatever the explanation, the complete answer isn’t just “why altruism” but “why punish the non altruistic”.

            One other kind of tangent, sometimes it’s hard to step back and think about these issues because we inevitably invoke the very cognitive modules we are discussing when we discuss the examples. So when we say “well obviously they would be punished” we think that is just common sense, barely worthy of discussion or explanation but in fact the fact that we all as humans take it for granted that cheaters would be punished is in itself a by product of whatever mechanism it is we are trying to understand.

          • In reply to #31 by Red Dog:

            Thank you, Red Dog. I’m glad we seem to have sorted out the misunderstandings. So no hard feelings then.

            One other kind of tangent, sometimes it’s hard to step back and think about these issues because we inevitably invoke the very cognitive modules we are discussing when we discuss the examples.

            That’s very true I think. We do quite a bit of punishing in discussions, when someone seems to be a rebel :)

            If punishing is adaptive for the individual (at least in the long run), it’s not a byproduct either, it’s an adaptive trait. And even if you are right that catholic priest jokes are getting lame, I still think it’s interesting that hypocrisy (not only in religion of course) could have an evolutionary basis. It can be adaptive to punish others to change their behaviour and make yourself look righteous, but still do a little cheating on the side as long as you are not exposed.

            This in turn can to some degree explain why religions and some other groups often have used strange and demanding rules. If you follow them, you are sending a “hard-to-fake”-signal to others. It is by no means a guarantee, but it gives the impression that you are less likely to be a fake. So strange rituals can be used to build trust.

            And trust is the counterpoint in an interesting dynamic between punishment and trust. As you point out, you should be nice to people who are nice, and punish those who treat you crappy. I think many game theory experiments, similar to the original post, have shown it’s a good strategy to try trust first, but punish if you are punished, and then after a while be prepared to “forgive” and try trust again.

            It’s adaptive to be trusting in an environment where others are trusting and cooperative, and be punishing in an environment where others are cheating and punishing.

            So as I understand it we probably have genes both for trusting/cooperating, and for punishing, and also for judging fairness so that we can choose effectively between trusting and punishing. But it seems likely there are also some genes that promote cheating. So when someone first criticises/punishes others, and then behaves like a cheating hypocrite, it may be partly due to genes. It may seem inconsistent, but selfish genes don’t care about consistency. It all makes sense in the light of evolution.

            Such perspectives are at the same time both disturbing and fascinating, I think.

          • In reply to #27 by kriton:

            I don’t understand at all why that is, and Red Dog is now refusing to discuss any further. If the error was so obvious, it should have been much faster for him to just explain why. But anyway. Perhaps you or anyone else would be so kind?

            I was just being a dick. I apologize, was having a bad day. Also, I got busy with other things and haven’t checked this in a while. So first, I agree I shouldn’t have been rude it was a legitimate question. See my previous reply to PG.

            I was simply saying that it’s not true that selfish rebels are “by definition” more likely to survive and have more children. Because of the mechanism of punishment, some rebels will not be more likely to survive and have more children. Which all fits nicely in selfish gene theory. That’s all.

            The mechanism of punishment is the crucial point. Once you have that you no longer have a gene for altruism alone (which would say just be altruistic to everyone in the species regardless of their behavior). When you start to include things like punishment you now have reciprocal altruism or something like that.

            Actually, that is one thing I’ve thought of recently I’m not sure if someone else has ever said this (Zeuglodon if you are still reading??) Perhaps you could have a gene for “fairness” rather than altruism. That is more or less reciprocal altruism but it’s a bit of a twist because it’s not just saying “be nice to those that are nice to me” it’s also saying “be mean to those that are mean” (and not just mean to me but mean to the species). It seems to me that a gene like that gets around the standard complaint about group selection. Essentially a gene for justice. I’ve tried reading the Wilson stuff on group selection and didn’t quite follow it but I wonder now if perhaps that is what he meant?

          • In reply to #22 by kriton:

            That’s a very evasive answer, Red Dog.

            Can you not see that only the last line was a joke? The rest was an attempt to make a serious argument.

            I am claiming that it’s not true that selfish rebels are “by definition” more likely to survive and have more children, because of the mechanism of punishm…

            Zeuglodon already answered this and better than I could have.

            I apologize for my evasive answer, I was trying to make a bit of a joke and that never ends well.

            The point I was making is that the argument you are trying to defend is just so obviously wrong it’s barely worth my time to refute it. Also, the point I was trying to make is that it amazes me how many people come to the Richard Dawkins site and don’t seem to have comprehended a core concept that is one of the fundamental ideas of The Selfish Gene. That’s why I won’t take a lot of time refuting it, I gave a ref. just go read The Selfish Gene up to page 10 and if you still think Dawkins is wrong after you read that then you aren’t intelligent enough to have a conversation with.

            And my other point was that people should spend more time actually reading and understanding the science Dawkins writes about and less time making dumb jokes about Catholics and Muslims.

  8. Red Dog to me was an argument that a species of cooperative animals would do better than the same species if they were all non-cooperative and therefor cooperative genes always win out. That is false. If anything it’s the opposite. In general because selection works on individuals rather than on groups there is always strong incentive for non-cooperators to emerge in a population of cooperators.

    And how does that work? You don’t co operate with me and aim to get the most from the situation, for you and your kin. I do the same and try to get the best from the situation for myself and my kin. And without co operation, or a large number of individuals with genes that predispose them to cooperate and be altruistic for the good of the gropu, the group we are in fails to prosper and so do our genes. They get wiped out as the group fails.

  9. Red dog comment 19

    “This explanation is based on the misconception that I have already mentioned that living creatures evolve to do things ‘for the good of the species’ or ‘for the good of the group’.

    Hi Red Dog, sorry I think I’m not explaining myself clearly and I guess coming across one of the reasons why the selfish gene is such a crap title for such a good book.

    I’m not suggesting we evolved to do things for the good of the group. I’m suggesting the good of the group is necessary for our survival hence we evolved to do things for the good of the group to ensure we survived. Without that group survival is harder if not impossible (for example we are the only species that cannot safely give birth alone we need others present). Hence the actual selfish gene is the one that predisposes us to altruism etc, to ensure group survival./

    As for one selfish individual, do the group not control that? Altuistic behaviour seems to have evolved early on, there is evidence of care of the sick and elderly dating back a long time. And your theory does not fit a lot of the evidence, most notably your example of helping during the holocaust

    • In reply to #25 by PG:

      Hi Red Dog, sorry I think I’m not explaining myself clearly and I guess coming across one of the reasons why the selfish gene is such a crap title for such a good book.

      Actually, I should apologize. Some of my comments here were rude. It took me a while to understand this stuff and I should try to explain rather than insult people when they ask serious questions. Zeuglodon is better at explaining this anyway but I feel bad for some of my previous answers so I’ll give it a shot too.

      BTW, even though I’ll do my best here my honest advice is just to get a copy of The Selfish Gene and re-read the first 10 pages or so. Also, I want to make it clear the position you are stating is not a dumb one at all, on the contrary you are right it does make a lot of intuitive sense and for a long time even many biologists thought you were right. That is why Dawkins devoted the beginning of the book to explaining where the idea goes wrong.

      I’m not suggesting we evolved to do things for the good of the group. I’m suggesting the good of the group is necessary for our survival hence we evolved to do things for the good of the group to ensure we survived. Without that group survival is harder if not impossible (for example we are the only species that cannot safely give birth alone we need others present). Hence the actual selfish gene is the one that predisposes us to altruism etc, to ensure group survival./

      There almost certainly must be genes that predispose us to work with people and for kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Where you get in trouble is thinking that there might be a gene for group altruism, i.e. a gene that says “I will sacrifice my reproductive success for the sake of some other member of the group even if there is no chance that doing so will lead to my reward in the future.”

      That and only that are what I claim (and I claim Dawkins as a source to back me up) isn’t consistent with what we know right now. And the distinction is a subtle one. A lot of altruistic behavior can be explained by reciprocal altruism. And the reciprocity doesn’t have to be “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours”. In primates and anthropological studies there are all sorts of subtle relations where males raise their status by various acts of courage and generosity and as a result they and their kin have better access to food and mating prospects.

      As for one selfish individual, do the group not control that? Altuistic behaviour seems to have evolved early on, there is evidence of care of the sick and elderly dating back a long time. And your theory does not fit a lot of the evidence, most notably your example of helping during the holocaust

      Yes! That’s the point! I’m not for a minute saying that altruism doesn’t happen, it obviously does. The question is how can we explain it? And the very important point is that we can’t explain all of it right now. The other important point is that as plausible as it might sound, a gene that selected for people to be altruistic to other members of the species isn’t consistent with for example game theoretic models of animal behavior.

      Remember the discussion about cooperators and cheaters. If there was a gene that said “always be cooperative to members of your own species” then when a cheater mutation developed that organism would be very successful, and it’s children would be successful, etc and eventually the cooperator gene would be replaced with the cheater gene. Now as I recall your objection was “wouldn’t people take corrective action against the cheater?” If they were human (or many species of primates) then absolutely they would. But if they do that they no longer have a gene for altruism (always be nice to members of your own species) they have a gene for fairness (be nice to members of your own species who are nice but be mean if they are not). That is the point, the gene is no longer just for altruism but for a restricted kind of altruism — be altruistic in some cases but punish in others. Reciprocal altruism is an example of that kind of more sophisticated behavior that does make sense from a game theory standpoint.

      And the reason the holocaust rescue case is so interesting is that it doesn’t fit any of the models — even some form of reciprocal altruism. (This is controversial some people think you can shoe horn it into one of them, the guy in the talk I linked to walks through why he thinks that won’t work). Remember not all human behavior can necessarily be explained by genetics. It could be that holocaust rescue has little to do with genetics at all, that it’s an example of a learned behavior from ingrained social norms like The Golden Rule. That kind of an answer would fit in nicely with a meme based explanation. Or it could be that there are more complex forms of group or multi-level selection. So I guess in theory you could even be right in that case, you would be in the E.O. Wilson camp. Wilson thinks that there may be genetic tendencies for the good of the species as a group.

      Sorry if the above sounds a bit confused, in my defense its… confusing, its a very open question and leading figures in biology like Dawkins and Wilson disagree fundamentally about the best approach to get the solution. But I think they would all agree that a simplistic (although intuitively appealing) answer such as a gene that promotes general altruism for the whole species won’t work.

  10. Red dog comment 19

    and Dawkins goes on to say his children will be more likely to be selfish and will also be more successful and have more selfish children, etc. After several generations the group that started out altruistic will end up selfish.

    Agreed Red Dog, but at some point the balance of selfish individuals starts to threaten the good of the group. Too many selfish individuals and the group ceases to be cohesive and to work.What happens then? The selfish individuals have literally destroyed the very thing that was protecting them by overwhelming it.

    Like parasites that kill the host before they have time to replicate.

  11. Red Dog
    Also, I want to make it clear the position you are stating is not a dumb one at all, on the contrary you are right it does make a lot of intuitive sense and for a long time even many biologists thought you were right. That is why Dawkins devoted the beginning of the book to explaining where the idea goes wrong.

    Hi Red Dog that’s fine. I’m not sure however, that anything now can completely or adequately explain. The two things I thought of were schools/hospitals compared with banking. Schools and hospitals tend to only run adequately with a surfeit of ‘altruistic’ individuals working in a relatively co operative fashion. They tend to muddle along and survive without going stratospheric. Banking on the other hand is composed of highly selfish individuals, it tends to be mega successful than fail completely when the greed destroys it. It has, for example, only survived because of altruistic bail outs from government.

    Hospitals seem to fit my idea, which I freely admit to not understanding how it could happen. And banking yours. So which is it?

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