Monday, February 04, 2008

People helping people: Why is it a puzzle?

To the Source advises me of another attempt to explain altruism (sacrificing oneself for others), this time by Steve Pinker in the New York Times Magazine, as an evolutionary strategy to spread one's selfish genes. Honestly, I do not know why they bother. But they do:
For the past several decades, leading neo-Darwinists have labored hard to provide a Darwinian basis for morality. The basic idea here is that morality is a form of extended selfishness. The mother who leaps into the burning car to save her children is acting unselfishly from her point of view, but from her genes' point of view, the action is entirely self-interested. The mother is simply trying to ensure that her genes make it into the next generation. Some evolutionists like Robert Trivers extend this logic to explain why we treat even strangers decently and fairly. This is called "reciprocal altruism," which may be translated as "I'll be nice to you, so that you can be nice to me."

Of course, that doesn't really explain why people help strangers or enemies, which they do surprisingly often. Some people just like to help or feel they must.

Actually, there isn't really a "problem of altruism." Only if you propose a theory by which everyone must be selfish, is there a problem of altruism. Absent the theory, it isn't a problem at all.

Over time, people develop a personal view of the world, which is not usually driven by genes, and they make decisions about helping from there.

In my own view, theories about "selfish genes" should be ignored unless specific genes are identified. Genes are real. The theory is probably not.