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whither altruism?

August 31, 2010

Introductory Psychology is full of theories. One of the ones that I thought had a solid grounding was the “inclusive fitness” theory. However, it appears the E. O. Wilson and colleagues are heading up a challenge to the notion of inclusive fitness – and it looks as though there will be a scientific throw down. Carl Zimmer does a nice job breaking down the basics over at The New York Times.

Basically, evolutionary theories are able to explain quite well how the behaviors of an individual reflect pressures to survive and pass on genetic material to later generations (known as evolutionary fitness).  However, sometimes (often?) individuals, humans and non-humans, will behave in such a way that they work against their own survival, but the actions can improve the likelihood of the survival of others. Prairie dogs will stand up and sound the alarm when a predator approaches – obviously fleeing immediately would be the behavior most likely to insure survival, but the prairie dogs seem to put themselves in harms way to alert the rest of the colony. The likelihood that any individual will commit to such an act seems to be related to how closely related they are to other members of the colony – more shared genetic material means a greater likelihood to engage in this sort of behavior. Parallel behaviors can be found in people – on the battlefield, in the supermarket parking lot, anywhere that one person puts herself or himself at risk to help others.

So, what difference does this make to the lowly Introductory Psychology instructor? Well, in every textbook I’ve perused in the past ten years, the explanation for why altruism exists rests on this idea that evolutionary pressures have helped to select out this tendency to put oneself at risk to help others, especially others that share genetic material. Without the notion of inclusive fitness – this idea of how altruism evolved is left rudderless. On the one hand, it is always a bit scary to realize that maybe, just maybe (assuming that the criticisms of inclusive fitness hold water – and there are a good number of folks who are criticizing the criticisms) something we thought we understood about human behavior wasn’t true. On the other hand, if the notion of inclusive fitness really is flawed and it is set aside – we clear the way for better, more appropriate theories about altruism to take root. Science is always on the move. That is  good thing, although now I’ll have to go back and revise my lecture notes…

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