forum discussion #17

The Origins of Kindness

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Listen to our interview with science historian Oren Harman. He’s our guest in this Science Forum discussion.

Harman is a professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel.

If evolution favors the survival of the fittest, how did kindness and selflessness evolve?  The search for that answer is the subject of Harman’s new book, The Price of Altruism.

It tells the story of George Price, a scientist who developed an equation that explains how natural selection can favor altruistic behaviors.
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As Harman writes, George Price’s life and work were full of contradictions.

Disappointed by his findings, because they implied that seemingly selfless behaviors are in fact selfish, Price decided to prove his own science wrong. He became an evangelical Christian and gave away everything he owned to the poor and homeless.

Price took his own life in 1975.

Oren Harman is taking your comments and questions. Come join the conversation. It’s just to the right.

  • What tells us more about human kindness: Price’s altruism for the poor, or his mathematical equation?
  • Do you believe any actions are truly selfless, or do all acts of kindness have ulterior motives?
  • What drives you to be kind to others?

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Your Comments

  1. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

    Oren Harman here, author of “The Price of Altruism”.
    I invite you to send in questions about the incredible life of George Price, the rich history of attempts to understand the origins of kindness, and about the ongoing science of altruism today. I look forward to interesting discussions in the next fortnight!

  2. Gian Villarreal

    I’m curious to find out how this applies to kindness toward other animals. For example, does the interest that humans have to protect dolphins imply a contradiction to Price’s equation or something else?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Dear Gian,
      the phenomena of acts of sacrifice and assistance between members of different species is well known and, as you know, some truly incredible instances have been documented (the example of the tiger nursing a sick baby monkey in the wild comes to mind). the price equation could in principle be applied to such a phenomena, but since it is so rare, it would really not tell you much. Human interest in other species, is another matter all together, one for which the price equation is not relevant. Here it is education and culture and ideology which come to bear.

  3. DJ Brasier

    I’m wondering to what extent Price’s equation relies on relatedness. Does altruism assume that you’re being nice to someone who shares your genes? Or, is it sufficient to show that 5 non-relatives who get along each have more children than a different group of 5 non-relatives who are always fighting?

    Thanks for a great topic!
    DJ

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Hi DJ,
      Thanks for your kind words. The nice thing about Price’s equation is that it does not assume relatedness. This is why Hamilton loved it so much; it was a generalization of his own rather limited kin selection equation, and therefore seemed to carry with it more hope. After all, altruism could evolve, the Price equation seemed to say, without recourse to nepotism. What it did require was association, however – that altruistic types associate with other altruistic types. When you think about it – this actually makes good sense!

  4. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Elsa Youngsteadt

    Hello Oren,

    Thanks for the fascinating interview.

    I wish I understood better the basis of the Price equation and how it allows for the evolution of altruism without genetic relatedness. Intuitively, this is hard for me to understand.

    Couldn’t human altruism have evolved in a context when our ancestors lived in smaller groups, in which many individuals were closely related? Under those conditions, a general instinct for self-sacrifice might have made better genetic sense.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Hi Elsa – and thanks for your kind words too!
      What you say about human altruism makes good sense. But the Price equation shows you that even before we get to humans on the evolutionary scale, acts of sacrifice of altruism could be possible without genetic relatedness, as kin selection seemed to suggest unequivocally. The math works if like stick to like, that is, if altruists tend to seek out each other. this could be due to relatedness, but it needn’t be. I think you’ll find a good explanation of this in the book!

  5. S.Beckner

    I’m thinking that racism, tribalism, nationalism, religious persecution, etc., are derived from what I’ll call the ‘altruism instinct’, since all of the above social phenomena tend to increase the sense of bonding (and thus altruism) within the ‘in’ group. Out-grouping serves the function of exalting the ‘in’ group, and thus presumably focussing and intensifying altruism within that group.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Elsa Youngsteadt

      Your comment reminds me of a recent article in Science magazine, which looks at how the hormone oxytocin encourages trust and altruism among members of a social group, but increases aggression toward “outsiders.”
      http://home.medewerker.uva.nl/s.shalvi/bestanden/Science%20editorial.pdf

      • S.Beckner

        Interesting link. Seems to suggest that in-group altruism and out-group hostility are expressions of a single impulse. And there is single notion that better encompasses both expressions — loyalty. So, thinking out loud, perhaps what these studies are observing and categorizing as altruism are in fact signals of loyalty to the group.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      This is precisely what Bill Hamilton thought! Look at his famous 1975 paper in Nature. Trivers actually called this Hamilton’s “Fascist paper” since it argued that kindness and altruism within a group are made possible by the existence of a second competing group on which ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ would be ruthlessly exercised! The notion that cooperation is intimately related to racism or inter-group warfare has troubled not just biologists but poets and philosophers…

      • S.Beckner

        Thanks for introducing me to “Hamiltonian spite”(!).

        However, my previous comments may be more applicable to D.S. Wilson’s ideas about the group as a biological entity with its own survival strategies.

        This can “evolve” to extreme forms, such as some Muslims’ call for imprisonment or death of apostates. Surely, in this case, altruism toward members of the group, as well as hostility toward outsiders, could be interpreted as a required display of loyalty to the group. One can suppose a developmental stage in the evolution of the group when such behavior was optional, but as a group becomes increasingly successful (i.e.dominant), the expected behaviors of the group’s members becomes increasingly reflexive (soft-wired).

  6. Gerald Bazar

    Wherein is the theory of “The Selfish Gene” (Richard Dawkins) wrong? He said that the most selfish genes survive because they, rather than the genes of the altruist, survive & are therefore propagated into the next generation. If I am altruistic, am I not less likely to survive and therefore lessen the odds that my genes will be propagated?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Hi Gerald!
      Dawkins has often said that he really should have called his book “the cooperative gene” since in most instances the genes that are successful in getting into the next generation are the ones that are able to do so by “getting along”, as it were, with their neighbors on the chromosome. we are aware of truly selfish genetic elements (see robert trivers’ latest book), but these are rarer phenomena.

  7. Pete Smillie

    Matthieu Ricard – the happiest man alive – is an example of evidence for evolutionary selection for altruisim. The emotional development of mankind is currently limited by economies – of war, countries and governments, so altruism is not really practicable on a large scale.

    When we fully realize that kindness equals happiness, then we will have evolved as a species, and the reasons selecting for altruistic behavior will be obvious to us all. After all, the Golden Rule has been with us for some time, but a materialistic driven cultures limit its application.

    Currently certain populations are also moving in the opposite direction, toward ego driven narcissism…is that part of the equation too, I wonder? No matter; the solution is: be kind.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      i agree, Pete – being kind is a good thing! I’m not sure it is “the” solution, but it will definitely help to make the world a better place!

  8. Price’s equation can help explain evolution of anything, not just altruism.

    I agree with Elsa Youngsteadt’s suggestion that human altruism towards nonrelatives may be partly an evolutionary relic, inherited from a time when we lived mostly among relatives. However, when most of your competitors are also relatives we expect less altruism between cousins, say, than we would see between two cousins in a big city of strangers.
    http://blog.lib.umn.edu/denis036/thisweekinevolution/2007/10/r.html

    As for the Dictyostelium you mention, they cooperate when they’re all the same genotype, but cheat when different genotypes are mixed, as discussed in this blog post:
    http://blog.lib.umn.edu/denis036/thisweekinevolution/2009/09/guest_blog_sneaky_slime_mold.html

    • I don’t think altruism is entirely predicted by relatedness. In conflict areas, some soldiers will run through villages and bayonette babies. Other soldiers will try to defend babies from harm. What’s relatedness got to do with that?

      For normal people, being with babies elevates compounds that help produce feelings of love toward them. When one feels like that, she or he becomes more willing to sacrifice self-interest when babies’ welfare is threatened. Price’s equation just doesn’t seem to cover that type of altruism.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Hello Ford! Yes, the price equation is a general selection equation that has absolutely no biological content: it holds true (it’s a mathematical tautology actually) for every selection process where there is a change to a trait between two groups or generations. So the equation is as useful for altruism as it is for the culling of stars in far off galaxies!
      with respect to the sneaky amoeba – yes, i’ve written about this in the book! formerly altruistic amoeba turn nasty when they are faced with members of a different clone.

  9. I realize the benefits of being encouraging using diplomacy and not violence. Antagonism is physical force and violence. There seems to be switching point where diplomacy ends and violence becomes useful for survival. My question is, Where is this switching point? When does resorting antagonism become beneficial as as opposed to the benefits of being encouraging?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Thanks for your question George.
      The answer lies, at least in part, in the application of game theory to the study of behavior, something that George Price himself pioneered in the late 1960s. It turns out that one can formalize what is called an ESS (Evolutionary Stable Strategy) for any given interaction which will tell you whether it is best to cooperate or turn antagonistic. In many cases, a mixed strategy is often the best solution. This is a vast field, and you can find it’s beginnings in a paper written by George and the great evolutionist John Maynard Smith in Nature in 1973, called “The Logic of Animal Conflict”

  10. Curious Guy

    After listening to the story and the brief description of the end of Price’s life I wondered – could the fact that by trying to disprove his equation with acts of kindness, he actually had done more to prove the accuracy of the equation? He was performing the acts of kindness not for those he helped, but to disprove his equation…might he have come to that realization? Any indications whether that may have been a factor?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Dear Curious Guy,
      I’ve thought about this a lot, too. Great question. I think that George’s inability to answer that very question ultimately contributed to his suicide. The fact that he could not ultimately whether he had embarked on his program of radical altruism for selfish or selfless reasons was too difficult for him to bear.

  11. Intergroup conflict could be a red herring. Is a perceived threat from some other human group really necessary to activate altruism? If so, it is understandable that racist and fascist demagogues could whip some up. But what if the threat isn’t some state, ideology, or minority, but something that most people generally relate to, such as an economic system that has become unsustainable and imperils humanity and its environment? Does the Price Equation address that type of threat dynamic?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Dear Geoff,
      The Price equation simply tells you the delta in a trait from one generation to the next as a function of the covariance of that trait with fitness, plus an expectation term which is a measure of the loyalty of the passing down of the trait. So, in reply to your question, the equation can be filled with any kind of matter you like. But a collapsed system isn’t such a piece of matter since it is not competing against the populace in the same way as the populace is competing against it. With reference to altruism more genrally, however, there is no doubt that external conditions can have an effect on the internal behaviro of the group and lead to cooperation. This was an insight that Darwin fell upon when he spoke about competing metaphorically against the elements.

  12. Very much enjoyed your insightful and intriguing interview, thank you. And what a remarkable coincidence! THE ALTRUISTS, a play about the life and work of George Price by British writer Craig Baxter, has just been selected as the winner of the fourth STAGE International Script Competition for the best new play about science and technology. STAGE – which stands for Scientists, Technologists & Artists Generating Exploration – will award Baxter a $10,000 cash prize and an opportunity to further develop his play. As founder/director of the STAGE Competition and Collaboratory (www.stage.cnsi.ucsb.edu), I’ve been fascinated to learn that Price’s work resonates with current investigations into social networking, cell behavior, and beyond. I look forward to reading your book with great pleasure.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Thanks for this good news about Craig Baxter’s play, Nancy. Craig got in touch with me some time ago and I read his script with pleasure. I wish him luck and can’t wait for the play to be produced! Enjoy the book!

  13. Eric Kasum

    Hi Oren, Thank you for this wonderful topic. Do you think it is possible to have World Peace? Is this an impossible dream? If it is possible, what would it take for us to achieve the goal of World Peace?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Dear Eric,
      I am a born optimist and so, yes, by all means, i think that world peace is not just a worthy goal but also a real possibility. Just like every one else, I don’t have the answer to how this will come about, although it is possible that some kind of external threat, or the internal threat of a degrading environment, might play a role in unifying us. This is the case in nature, and has been the case historically in man. Still, it would of course be wonderful were we not to need a threat to bring us together…

      • Linda Arney Wilson

        When I was a kid, I read about the high level of civilization attained by the ancient Greeks. I assumed that, after about 2000 years, civilization would have evolved further. I assumed that each person would work toward improving himself and for the betterment of mankind. I looked around and saw the physical success of mankind and thought (briefly) that we had evolved. As I grew older, I saw that the physical manifestations of the evolution of civilization were present but, morally, we were no more civilized than the brutal civilizations that preceded us. Why then, when it is easier and more self-serving to cooperate, do we insist on belittling, stealing from, and making war on others? World Peace would benefit everyone, yet it becomes more elusive every day. Human nature intervenes.

  14. Damon Feldmeth

    Hello Oren,

    I read a book called “Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters” which concerned evolutionary psychology. The authors explained altruism as an attempt by “Savannah Man” to promote the genes of his own tribe, which would be very similar to his own.

    This does not explain the Good Samaritan, who was instead inspired by nothing more than human compassion. He was obviously from a different tribe than the Jew, and would share fewer genes than with his own kind. Could the Good Samaritan be following a higher example, a non-evolutionary trait?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Thanks for your question Damon. Clearly, evolutionary explanations of human behavior can never be sufficient. Just because you have plausibly explained the origin of a behavior does not mean that you have explained that behavior entirely. We need to look to culture and tradition and education to understand altruism in humans, not just to biology!

      • Fernando B

        Wouldn’t a purely biological study be better, since there would be less variables? There would be no culture or education to consider.
        The ‘altruism gene’ or, as mentioned above, ‘the cooperative gene’ seems to imply a prescription among the gene pool in life, an “I’ll help you, so you can help me later” gene.
        How do the genes that survived yesterday’s obstacle, become of any use for tomorrow? It’s as if we’re always using ‘old data,’ unless something transcendent directs the ‘survival of the fittest’ to a ‘survival for a reason,’ but this touches on Intelligent Design.

  15. Patrick B.

    Oren thanks for mentioning education in that last post. As one of many of our nation’s out of work teachers I’d like to ask what ways have been found to paraphrase or teach Price’s Equation to children?

    In my own research (since education is very research based now and I was formerly an engineer), I used the phrase “abstract empathy” to describe the assignment of emotional parallels to other people. Kids are especially capable of this because the mimic pathways of learning are a two way street. This explains a greater propensity to assign learned emotions and personifications to even the most mundane inanimate and unreal objects. The data suggest Children with strong imaginations seem more prone to empathy while those struggling to survive have a harder time abstractly applying emotions.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Hi Patrick, and thanks for your comment.
      I guess the best way to talk to kids about the meaning of George Price’s equation is to talk about the meaning of George Price’s life. Explaining to children that George was trying to find a scientific solution to where altruism comes from, and that the solution he found – namely that benevolence was always disguised self interest – ultimately led him to become a radical altruist himself, helping the poor and homeless people of London – is probably the best way get kids interested in the subject and to ignite their imagination. And if what you say about imagination is true, then the story of George Price’s life will have had even more of an impact!

  16. Divakar

    Hi Oren,
    I haven’t read the book, but listening on the radio about the book and also about the works of Price, I have a thought to share.

    I believe any act of kindness is only for selfish motive.

    I am not aware of the conclusion of Price’s equation, where in to prove his math/theory wrong he started giving away all his money. If you analyze this particular action of his, the primary motive to give away all his wealth was only to disprove his earlier believed theory, which again is a selfish motive.

    I think there can be no act of human which could be selfless. I guess any act of kindness without selfishness is not human.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Dear Divakar,
      thanks for your thoughts. I don’t know if I agree, although I don’t know that I disagree either! Whether human altruism is truly selfless or not, I don’t think science can ever provide the answer either…

  17. An elementary problem in game theory is the prisoners’ dilemma, where two players get different payoffs according to whether they act selfishly or cooperatively where the payoffs vary according to the other player’s move. In the simplest version, the optimal strategy is to “rat-out” the opponent (defection), but in more sophisticated versions (called iterated) involving repeated rounds and memory of an opponent’s past behavior, the optimal strategy is “tit-for-tat,” i.e. to cooperate (prospectively) in the first round but later cooperate with opponents who cooperated but defect against opponents who defected. This risks an initial cost in hope of finding a cooperative partner. This was learned after Price’s death. Did Price Grapple with anything like the iterated prisoners’ dilemma?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Dear Ultrarad,
      The prisoner’s dilemma that you described was actually already known to Price – it had been developed at the RAND corporation in the 1950s. In fact, one of Price’s great contributions to evolution was to apply for the very first time, together with John Maynard Smith, game theory to problems in animal behavior. Their partnership produced the first paper on an ESS, or evolutionary stable strategy – an approach which has since become a mainstay of evolutionary biology. Have a look at the book for the history behind this great innovation, as well as at the historic paper itself, “The Logic of Animal Conflict”, from Nature 1973.

  18. Oren, Thanks for your earlier reply. I also wonder if there’s any indication Price considered dynamics, where variations in selective pressure over time (“good times” versus “tough times”) can permit altruism to emerge in good times but segregate in tough times to later yield an advantage to the group of altruists–really mutualists.

    In more academic language, did he grapple with anything along the lines of a punctuated equilibrium (developed by Eldrege and Gould in 1972, late in Price’s life) where payoff matrices of altruism and despotism might vary (either way) by the stringency of selective pressure at the time?

    [Readers may note a theme here, that the bleakness of his conclusion rests in part on the incompleteness of knowledge at the time. {I also wonder whether his suicide has at least as much to do with unrelated factors.}]

  19. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

    If any one would like to ask any questions about George Price, or to offer thoughts and comments about his unusual and fascinating life, I would be glad for them!

  20. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

    Hi Oren,

    Thanks for taking the time to be on our Science Forum. I’m curious how you first heard about Price’s story? And at what point did you decide that you had to write a book about him?

    Rhitu

  21. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

    Hi Rhitu!
    I was aware of the Price equation having studied evolutionary biology, but knew very little about Price the man until I read a short passage about him in a book called The Darwin Wars, back in 1999. I remember reading about a man who wrote an equation that explains altruism who then committed suicide for reasons having to do with the equation, and thinking to myself: Wow, this is the stuff of movies! – then forgetting about it for another 7 years. When I finally returned to Price the man around 2006, I soon learned that little was known of his mysterious life, but that a large collection of papers that might shed light on it existed in the dens of his two surviving daughters. When I made a trip to Californian to meet the daughters and saw the copious papers, I knew then and there.

  22. I felt this was such a sad tale and wonder why we feel that if there is some quality of “advantage” to altruism it means, as Price seemed to believe, that kindness and altruism are thus somehow “false.” Perhaps there is some innate understanding in humans that knows that the separation of one from another is fundamentally unreal and thus kindness to others is indeed kindness to ourselves. I feel a lot of sadness for George Price who lost sight of how kindness and altruism are a fundamental parts of what it is to be human.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Dear Ellen,
      Thanks for your very thoughtful and sensitive comment. I agree with you entirely. George’s conclusion was of course not a necessary one: just because we might get something out of our acts of kindness to others, whether consciously or not, need not take away at all from the importance and good intent of the benevolence itself. Natural selection may have in fact “provided” the feel-good sensation of giving in order to safe-guarded giving as an important social bond in societies in the wild, there seems to be some evidence of this is monkeys. But of course human motivation is a very complex thing, and the fact that an act of altruism might be motivated by a number of causes need not lead to cynicism.

  23. Mary C. Russell

    I never heard of George Price but will read your book. All I want to say is that if one is able to put oneself in the place of a suffering fellow creature, one is compelled to help. If you know there is a need and you can assist, then you just do it. That’s how we’re made. That’s what feels right. You don’t think about it, you just respond.

    You don’t have to give away your all and thus become destitute yourself, but you can help to whatever extent you’re able.

    More interesting to find out why some react to help anyone in need and others ignore or find reasons not to. To ignore the plight of another is the opposite to what is instinctive, I’d think.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

      Dear Mary,
      There seems to be a lot of variation in humans with regard to situations in which help is needed by another. Some react to help instinctively, others freeze, others run away from or ignore the fellow man’s plight. Scientists interested in this variation study the genetics of certain hormone receptors, such as vasopressin and oxytocin, and some have made claims that the variation in these genes may account for some of the variation in behavior. At their best, these studies show the genes accounting for some 4% of the behavior – hardly a complete and satisfying explanation! Clearly, there is much more than a few genes encoding a few hormones involved here!

      • Mary C Russell

        Sussman and Chapman’s 2004 book, The Origins and Nature of Sociality, synthesizes data, research and input of scholars in various disciplines to show that, instead of being genetically predisposed to competition and aggression, humans and perhaps other animals have a biological foundation for unselfish social interaction.

        Susmann says: “It’s part of our brain chemistry to derive pleasure from positive social interaction. Far from being inherently violent, humans demonstrate a natural abhorrence of violence and conflict. We have to train soldiers to kill. It’s not instinctive.
        Sociobiology and individual selection do not explain ‘unselfish’ unselfish behavior that benefits others but leaves the individual no opportunity to pass on his own genetic legacy. To explain that, we must give more consideration to group selection and the benefits of sociality.”

        This book makes the case that we are programmed to care for one another.

  24. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

    Thanks, Mary! Yes, I know Sussman and Chapman’s book. I agree with many of their positive claims, though the notion that we all are instinctively repelled by violence and need to be trained to kill seems like overkill to me and not strictly true. The truth is that natural selection has instilled in human nature many impulses, some of them competing and antagonistic. We have the capacities for altruism alongside violence, as well as more “neutral” traits such as the ability to become bored!

  25. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

    The history of attempts to understand altruism scientifically is studded with colorful characters.
    From the anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin and “Darwin’s Bulldog” T.H. Huxley, to the Hungarian mathematical genius John von Neumann and the “last man to know everything” J.B.S. Haldane, it traces a story of the interplay between scientific and social and political thought. If any one has any questions or comments about this interplay, or abut the history of attempts to crack altruism, I would be glad to hear your thoughts!

  26. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Baron

    Thanks for a terrific conversation.

    I’m curious to know if altruism can only flourish — or is more likely to flourish — under certain environmental conditions. Lawless places (Somalia today, or Rwanda during the genocide) seem like “Lord of the Flies”-type societies, driven by cruel and selfish behavior. Of course, even in such situations you see some altruistic people (e.g. Rwanda hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina), but they seem rare.

    Is altruism more likely in well-functioning societies that operate under the rule of law?

  27. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

    Thanks for your question, David.
    In human societies, it seems that institutionalized altruism, in the form of organized philanthropy, giving, etc, is very much dependent on the rule of law, or custom. Any kind of disruption to the law or custom usually result in injury to the institution of giving. Of course it also provides opportunity for individual acts of kindness, but that is a different sort of thing. What this teaches us is that in humans there will always be altruists who feel compelled to act benevolently towards others, but that benevolence as an organized form of behavior is very much dependent on a healthy, functional social fabric.

  28. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Oren Harman

    We’re closing our discussion today and I’d just like to say what a pleasure it’s been reading your comments and questions, and being able to converse with you about the topic of altruism. I want especially to thank Rhitu Chatterjee, our wonderful host, for providing this forum for exchange of ideas. Finally, it is my hope that George Price and his incredible life will now finally become known. George still rests beneath an unmarked grave at the St. Pancras cemetery in London. His brilliant contributions to science, as well as his tragic but highly insightful and original life, deserve to be widely acknowledged and celebrated. So, thank you all again for a wonderful two weeks of ideas, and here’s to George and to altruism!

  29. Frances Shaffer

    Hampered with no science but having pondered on the “gift” of altruism, could it be that man found, fairly early on, that he was likely to feel better about himself if he did not slaughter the one next to him and that, if he shared his food, he simply felt better about himself–possibly even felt more powerful? And, all the while, the force of survival was strong within him and he was moved to destroy what violated his borders and took his food source?
    To me it would seem that the presence of altruism is just as intrinsic as combat because both are a means of survival, possibly learned slowly but not differentiated early on. I know it is simplistic but what about the presence of joy and sorrow? They too seem to co-exist as polar opposites. Frances Shaffer

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