RE: virus: Altruism, Empathy, the Superorganism, and the Priso ner's

Wright, James 7929 (
Fri, 18 Apr 97 15:23:00 EDT

Reed wrote:
>Are we really going to get into an argument over definitions again?<
I hope not;
>Are you willing to accept, as a possibility that altruism, as you have
defined it, >doesn't exist? <
Only as a possibility; I have seen many examples of such behavior, read
about many more, and disproof of its existence would require
documentation of the deliberate deception/malice/conspiracy of quite a
few people. Presumably, at least ONE of them was displaying true
Albert Schweitzer - Mother Teresa - Mohandas Gandhi - Gotama Shakyamuni -
Dalai Lama - etc.
>Perhaps that is a false category, or perhaps the definition ascribes an
incorrect >"intent" to the altruist? <
Verifying "intent" is a dubious proposition.
>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)
There are an awful lot of observations of behavior for them all to be
misinterpreted. I can grant the possibility, but it stretches my
credulity to the limit!
<Snip direct address to Robin>
>How about this:
>Obviously we behave in ways that appear "altruistic" 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.<
There are yet other altruistic categories. Can you imagine the variety
that actually views all humans as different aspects of one humanity, even
one-self, so that to struggle against another human for food or territory
or whatever is to struggle against oneself?
This is not as isolated a viewpoint as you might imagine.
>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
>tensely balanced equilibrium, from the simplest chemical reactions to
>most complex sociopolitical patterns of culture. All organisms that
>persist and reproduce must, by definition, be "self
>how "self" in defined can be variable (for instance the "self" of a
>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
>We all must eat.<
Yes, but we are not compelled to eat each other.
Unfortunately, those humans who choose not to persist and reproduce
(monks, nuns, etc.) are not universally "dis-interested"; Rasputin and
Cardinal Richelieu come to mind.
>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
>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
>nature, self-interested; we could not persist were we not.<
Unfortunately, pure communism suffers from the same problem that many
others do: who decides? "From each according to his abilities..." is
fairly clear, if you rule out coercion (forced prison labor, artificial
involuntary narcotic stimulation, etc.) but the " each, according to
his needs" is rife with problems. Who decides for me what my needs truly
are? If there is any surplus, what is to be done with it, and by whom?
>I believe that any thinking person acknowledges that however desireable,
>pure communism is not in fact a stable or even attainable system. In
>it's very dangerous to try to institute such economic/social systems.
>the same way that by denying "the flesh" Christianity has given birth to
>the concept of "premarital sex", exploitation of little boys by
>"holy" priests, and an entire Western culture both afraid of and
>by sex by denying our self-interested natures we create a mechanism
>people are both afraid of and mesmerized by wealth and progress.<
How do you account for family life, where near-communistic ideals can be
attained? The father/mother work because they can, both to support
themselves and the children; the children receive because they need.
I do not address your analysis of Western culture because I agree with
most of it.
>I'm not, though, arguing that becuase we are self-interested in nature
>are doomed to be selfish in behavior. That's the naturalistic fallacy,
>has given rise to robber barons, social darwinists, and all manner of
>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
>our being. By denial we simply allow them to act unchecked and
A decent perspective; rather than confront your baser nature, can you
turn it to better use?
<Snip discussion of Tibet>
>In the same sense we can look at, value, teach, and reinforce
>ideas and behaviors despite the acknowledgement that they often emerge
>or are derivatives of self-interested goals. I say that altruism
>from or is derived from our evolved ability to recognize a good
>that our concepts of "altruism" and "communism" etc. are extrapolations
>that our very plastic minds make from these somewhat more plebian
>and negotiations over food, ideas, and other neccesities.<
Another decent perspective; I still regard true altruism as a more
prevalent phenomena than you do. Why are there so many firemen?
>We are the sense that we can engage in trade, that we
>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
>and more mutually benificial mechanisms of group/self-interest.<
And a few, rare or not according to individual perception, engage in
altruistic behavior because they understand that all humans are related
by more than common ancestors, that the progress of the race is faster
when some individuals cooperate more than they compete, and that charity
is its own justification, without regard to how, why or for whom it is
Thanks for a thought-provoking post.


Reed Konsler