Friday, April 25, 2008

Altruism: Why it can't really exist but why it does anyway

"Charity, do-gooding, philanthropy it's all just selfishness masquerading as virtue," notes Jim Holt in the New York Times Magazine (March 9, 2008), citing what he calls the cynical view:
In modern times, the theory that each of us, despite occasional appearances of self-sacrificial nobility, is ultimately and invariably looking out for No. 1 got a big boost from Darwin's theory of evolution. By the logic of natural selection, any tendency to act selflessly ought to be snuffed out in the struggle to survive and propagate. So if someone seems to be behaving as an altruist - say, by giving away a fortune to relieve the sufferings of others - that person is really following the selfish dictates of his own genes. The evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse confessed that he slept badly for many nights after absorbing this supposed discovery, which he called "one of the most disturbing in the history of science."

"Supposed" discovery hits the notion square on the head - and, I hope, puts it out of its misery.

The view Holt describes is not, strictly speaking, a "cynical" view. Evolutionary psychology has, as a central project, the idea of showing that all human behaviour is analogous to the behaviour of primate apes. That is the reason - indeed the only reason - why genuine altruism is considered a problem. Absent that project, genuine altruism would be regarded as merely one facet of human behaviour, and could be interpreted in a variety of ways. But it would not need to be explained away.

Anyway, Holt reviews the supposed reasons that people "really" help others, but finds them unconvincing. He cites an interesting experiment at the University of Oregon:
Nineteen students were given $100 each and told that they could anonymously donate a portion of this money to charity. The students who, on average, donated the most showed heightened activity in the pleasure centers of their brain as they gave up the money. Their generosity was accompanied by a neural "warm glow."

[ ... ]

But can an objective reason, by itself, motivate selfless generosity? In the Oregon brain-scanning experiment, curiously enough, two of the students who were the most liberal in their charitable giving were "outliers" who seemed to get no neural reward for their generosity. They did not benefit from the warm-glow effect. Yet they were outstandingly altruistic anyway.

Yes, because some people are just like that. It may be that no apes are like that. But so?