virus: Altruism, Empathy, the Superorganism, and the Prisoner's Dillema

Reed Konsler (
Fri, 18 Apr 1997 12:04:25 -0400 (EDT)

>From: Robin Faichney <>
>Date: Fri, 18 Apr 1997 09:39:00 +0100
> wrote:
>>Obviously we are
>> the sense that we can engage in trade, that we can delay
>>gratification, that we are willing to "invest" effort today on the
>>assumption that there will be return with interest at a later date.
>Sorry, that's not altruism.
>Regard for others, both natural and moral; devotion to the interests of
>others; brotherly kindness; -- opposed to egoism or selfishness.

Are we really going to get into an argument over definitions again?

Are you willing to accept, as a possibility that altruism, as you have
defined it, doesn't exist? Perhaps that is a false category, or perhaps
the definition ascribes an incorrect "intent" to the altruist? Let's say
that the "strong" altruism which you have defined (by this I mean true both
literally and in essence) turns out to be a misinterpretation of a lot of
observations...a (I learned this word on this list...I love you guys)

I guess what I'm asking is this: Do you disagree with my previous post
because it doesn't have a "ring of truth" in your mind? Does it seem
logically inconsistent? Or is it that the implications of the post that
you disagree with?

But, I'm also a picker of nits (I eat them!) If I use language a little
poetically or neglect a proper caveat it's usually due to a time

How about this:

Obviously we behave in ways that appear "altruistic" the sense that we
can engage in trade, that we can delay gratification, that we are willing
to "invest" effort today on the assumption that there will be return with
interest at a later date. Sometimes this willingness to place small bets
on the future evolves into a system of true "altruism" where we sacrifice
without expecting return, or sacrifice and forget about it. There are
examples of humans behaving as martyrs for various causes and these reflect
a general tendency among humans to be more or less cooperative.

It is important to recognize that all the behaviors of an organism are
overdetermined; even persisting in a state of rest is the outcome of myriad
tensely balanced equilibrium, from the simplest chemical reactions to the
most complex sociopolitical patterns of culture. All organisms that
persist and reproduce must, by definition, be "self interested"...although
how "self" in defined can be variable (for instance the "self" of a worker
ant is an interesting concept). Human minds give us incredible
plasticity...we can adopt paradigms of selfish AND selfless action. But
these paradigms/ideas/memes cannot remove us from the reality in which they
We all must eat.

I believe any thinking person acknowledges the idea of pure communism as
the most attractive, most altruistc, and most desireable system from an
intellectual perspective. You might say it's a good "description" of the
perfect culture. The problem, of course, is that we aren't perfect. We
compete, we exploit one another, we fight over resources. We are, by our
nature, self-interested; we could not persist were we not.

I believe that any thinking person acknowledges that however desireable,
pure communism is not in fact a stable or even attainable system. In fact,
it's very dangerous to try to institute such economic/social systems. In
the same way that by denying "the flesh" Christianity has given birth to
the concept of "premarital sex", exploitation of little boys by supposedly
"holy" priests, and an entire Western culture both afraid of and mesmerized
by sex by denying our self-interested natures we create a mechanism where
people are both afraid of and mesmerized by wealth and progress.

I'm not, though, arguing that becuase we are self-interested in nature we
are doomed to be selfish in behavior. That's the naturalistic fallacy, and
has given rise to robber barons, social darwinists, and all manner of other
cultural shoggoths. I am simply insisting that there is a difference
between DENIAL and CONTROL. We can control our baser natures if we
recognize them, if we confront them, and if we accept them as integral to
our being. By denial we simply allow them to act unchecked and

I think it is still possible to respect, for instance, the wisdom of the
current Dali Lama while still acknowledging that he is a temporal as well
as a spiritual leader and that Tibet, before invasion by China was under
the strong influence of the Buddhist monks. Does the fact that those monks
were supported by the common farmer make them less wise?

In the same sense we can look at, value, teach, and reinforce "altruistic"
ideas and behaviors despite the acknowledgement that they often emerge from
or are derivatives of self-interested goals. I say that altruism emerges
from or is derived from our evolved ability to recognize a good swap...and
that our concepts of "altruism" and "communism" etc. are extrapolations
that our very plastic minds make from these somewhat more plebian barters
and negotiations over food, ideas, and other neccesities.

We are the sense that we can engage in trade, that we can
delay gratification, that we are willing to "invest" effort today on the
assumption that there will be return with interest at a later date, and
that the extrapolation of these abilities allows us to create and test new
and more mutually benificial mechanisms of group/self-interest.


Reed Konsler