More on Altruism

Following up on yesterday’s post on Sam Bowles’ work, the tsunami and the response to it give Mark Buchanan an opportunity to explore why humans cooperate with genetic strangers.

“Not that Homo sapiens is the only species in which individuals bestow kindness on others.  Many mammals, birds, insects and even bacteria do likewise. . . Humans are different, for we cooperate with complete genetic strangers – workmates, neighbours, anonymous people in far-off countries. Why on earth do we do that?
. . .
One possibility, [Robert] Trivers suggests, is that evolution actually is wiping these people out – it just hasn’t finished the job yet. He, along with many anthropologists, takes the view that humans evolved to cooperate when our ancestors lived in small, isolated groups of hunter-gatherers. . . If Trivers is right, then true altruism is what evolutionary biologists call a ‘maladaptation’. Evolved to respond in a certain way to a given situation, we find it hard to act differently in the changed circumstances of the modern world.
. . .

[But] support for the idea that strong reciprocity is an adaptation in its own right comes from the theoretical studies of economist Herbert Gintis of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, anthropologist Robert Boyd of the University of California at Los Angeles, and others. They set up a computer model in which groups of individuals interacted, and watched how their behaviour evolved. Individuals were set up in the model to behave initially either as cheats or as cooperators, and in personal interactions the former came off best. When groups competed with one another, however, cooperation came into its own: groups with more cooperators were likely to flourish.

But that was only the start.”