Why reciprocal altruism was a bad choice of words

Why reciprocal altruism was a bad choice of words.

The following definitions are taken fromhttps://iep.utm.edu/altruism-and-group-selection/

First the distinction between biological and colloquial altruism

“Biological altruism is a course of action that enhances the expected fitness of another at the expense of one’s own fitness.”

Colloquial altruism as follows “An ultimate motivation of assisting another regardless of one’s direct or indirect self-benefit is necessary for it to be altruistic in the ordinary sense ─ for what we might call moral altruism”

The biological definition is somewhat muddled by the fact that the word was invented by Comte to have the following meaning “a theory of conduct that regards the good of others as the end of moral action.” Taking it out of a moral context abuses the idea that language requires internal consistency and logic. The colloquial meaning has not changed much over time so my first argument is find another word if you are going to change the meaning.

That is not to say that science does not have its own set of definitions for terms that may vary from colloquial use. In the past the convention was to use Latin to avoid confusion. So I would not have as much of a problem with how it is used if Latin had been used as in alteri huic ‘to this other’. My guess is the English word was used to make the concept more accessible. That however would not resolve the philosophical issues.

A frame of reference is needed to translate a scientific concept into a philosophical concept. Basically a philosophy of science. A philosophy of science is a topic that spans many volumes and endless debate but still a working definition is called for. (A detailed discussion can be found here Scientific Method (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) ) It seems appropriate since science is natural philosophy that it be defined by nature. I would define science as the natural process of observation, hypothesis and testing, in that order. What validates this view is that every organism uses the same process. Take an ameba for example. It makes observations of the chemicals in its environment, forms a “hypothesis” on which concentrations are more food like and which are poisonous and tests the “hypothesis” by moving in the direction of more food and less poison. This definition avoids the subjectivity that creeps in as to what degree of cognition is necessary to call something an observation, hypothesis, or test.

The problem with the term reciprocal altruism isn’t so much that it is factually inaccurate based on the above definition of science but what creeps into every evolutionary discussion, which is purpose. Let’s rewrite the first definition to remove any hint of subjectivity. Expected fitness of another at the expense of one’s own fitness becomes group fitness at the expense of individual fitness. That helps but the problem remains.

The problem starts with evolution’s fundamental dependence on random mutations. Ignore for now the idea of evolved to evolve or the indivisibility of reality, etc. etc. A random mutation is by definition without purpose. We next have to tackle the issue of if individual selection is dependent on random mutations is group selection as well. The short answer is that only individuals have genes. A complication arises in that groups have “culture”. By bending colloquial definitions a bit you could say all social animals and perhaps even non-social animals have culture. To simplify, the idea that information about the environment is passed on from one generation to the next by non-genetic or at least by means other than alterations to DNA. Epigenetics makes that somewhat outdated but I think we can ignore that as well. All we really have to accept is that regardless of non-genetic transfer DNA still defines a species. Minus genetic engineering selection remains dependent on random mutations. Selection inherits its purposelessness from random mutations.

The question is why is purposelessness so important to this discussion? The answer is from a scientific perspective it isn’t. The problem is that the people that propose “reciprocal altruism” don’t stop there. Wittingly or otherwise they try to construct a morality based on science. Altruism once again takes on the colloquial definition. I’m not actually proposing that the people who do this are not sophisticated enough to not notice the problem. The question becomes why do they do it if you cannot develop a morality from a naturalistic perspective?

Morality implies intention and evolution has no intention. It cannot because it is dependent on random mutations. Switching to selection doesn’t solve the problem because selection is dependent on random mutations. You could argue that fitness is built into selection and DNA but scientifically fitness is a consequence not an intention. “Mother nature” doesn’t actually “care” if you or your species survives. Every species that has or will ever exist is either extinct or headed towards extinction. What then are the arguments against nihilism and narcissism? The answer is “created” meaning and “created” morality. What have people discovered that creates meaning in life?

I would argue that reciprocal altruism is one of those abstract creations that create meaning. The importance of the distinction between abstract reality and physical reality become clear when we talk about cultural evolution. How is meaning created or destroyed culturally?

This is a excellent inquiry.

IMO, when we add “selective” to the phrase “reciprocal altruism”,
i.e. “selective reciprocal altruism” the result seems to become; “symbiosis”.

I haven’t had time to read it all but here is an excerpt.


ALTRUISTIC behavior can be defined as behavior that benefits another organism, not closely related, while being apparently detrimental to the organism performing the behavior, benefit and detriment being defined in terms of contribution to inclusive fitness.

One human being leaping into water, at some danger to himself, to save another distantly related human from drowning may be said to display altruistic behavior. If he were to leap in to save his own child, the behavior would not necessarily be an instance of “altruism”; he may merely be contributing to the survival of his own genes invested in the child.

Models that attempt to explain altruistic behavior in terms of natural selection are models designed to take the altruism out of altruism. For example, Hamilton (1964) has demonstrated that degree of relationship is an important parameter in predicting how selection will operate, and behavior which appears altruistic may, on knowledge of the genetic relationships of the organisms involved, be explicable in terms of natural selection: those genes being selected for that contribute to their own perpetuation, regardless of which individual the genes appear in.

The term “kin selection” will be used in this paper to cover instances of this type, that is, of organisms being selected to help their relatively close kin.

The model presented here is designed to show how certain classes of behavior conveniently denoted as “altruistic” (or “reciprocally altruistic”) can be selected for even when the recipient is so distantly related to the organism performing the altruistic act that kin selection can be ruled out. The model will apply, for example, to altruistic behavior between members of different species.

i.e. “symbiosis”.

It will be argued that under certain conditions natural selection favors these altruistic behaviors because in the long run they benefit the organism performing them.

In the long run it benefits both organisms and in the case of the reciprocal altruisms between flowerig plants and pollinating insects the result feeds some 75 % of herbivore animals on earth. I would call that “meaningful”.

more… https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/Trivers-EvolutionReciprocalAltruism.pdf

You keep expanding my reading list :slight_smile:

I ran into something similar when I was trying to find research that indicated that evolved to evolved was actually “real”. I found none that satisfied me. It turned out that in every case given large enough numbers of organisms that no complex system for taking advantage of random mutations was necessary. If I understand that quote properly the author is saying that it is an illusion that “altruism” doesn’t benefit the individual organism that engages in it. That doesn’t mean we are back to individual selection. What it means is we have to look at group selection differently. Simply put if individuals do not survive there is no way to pass on DNA. Groups do not reproduce individuals do. But certain types of groups will be selected for because their individuals go on to reproduce. As I mentioned earlier it has been general considered that only eusocial animals benefit from group selection. That is because most members of a eusocial group do not take part in reproduction. I have read that most human gene lines run out over a fairly low number of generations. That most people alive today can have their gene line traced back to a relative small number of individuals compared to the total that have could have contributed genes. While eusocial animals have limited number of reproducing members in a group it turns out that over time the same can be said for most animals. As we have discussed before it is never an all or nothing situation. The definitions are always drawing arbitrary red lines or categorizations to reduce complexity. That is where your wholeness and implicated order comes in. To be honest I haven’t sorted it out yet so I will keep reading.

I discovered that the description of evolution always leaves out a very important result.

Survival to procreate results in a contribution to the “general” gene-pool of the species.

1 Like