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

Robin Faichney (
Sat, 19 Apr 1997 10:45:00 +0100 wrote:
>>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?

Arguments over definitions will always arise.

>Are you willing to accept, as a possibility that altruism, as you have
>defined it, doesn't exist?

Hey -- that's not *my* definition, that's the standard definition. Look
up any dictionary. And I *don't* accept that it doesn't exist. Because
as I said very recently, I don't believe that ideas about our "ultimate"
motivations are very meaningful. Which is why I think it must be
understood more behaviourally, and I think it's indisputable that
people sometimes behave in the ways mentioned in that definition.

>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.

All of this is self-interest. Trade is usually for profit, as is
Gratification could be delayed for various reasons, prominent among
which is the belief that to do so will benefit *me*. I say it's wrong
use "altruistic" here, because it's not just an extension of the normal
usage, it actually goes against it.

>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.

This may be correct, in fact I think it probably is, but you can't say
just because altruism evolves from some particular type of behaviour,
that behaviour should also be called altruism. My neighbour grows
great roses in horse-shit. Does that mean that horse-shit is roses?

>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.

Right. Except that cooperation is a hell of a lot more common than
that, and IMHO martyrdom is rather a distorted example of it.

>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).

That's right. And sometimes we identify with a community. And
sometimes the most self-interested thing we can do, in the long
term, is to suppress our selfishness in the short term for the
benefit of the community. *And*, don't forget, we evolved not to
survive as individuals, but for the sake of our genes, which (for
the most part) are shared with the rest of the species. And it
is precisely because our interests are often shared with others
that to talk about whether action is "ultimately" self- or other-
oriented is not very useful. That distinction is not *ultimately*

>I'm not, though, arguing that becuase we are self-interested in nature we
>are doomed to be selfish in behavior.

I don't agree with this dichotomy. What's selfish and what's unselfish
is not that simple. This seems to based on the old Christian notion of
original sin, that to be good we have to go against our basic nature.
Seems to me that, very often at least, it's in our own best interests to
act "unselfishly". For instance, that way we get to build great
relationships with people, where both have a terrific amount of trust
in the other, and you can do things together that are impossible any
other way. And, once you break some bad habits, you find that such
behaviour can be perfectly natural.

For instance, just last night, lying in the bath, I realised that a
certain long-term writing project of mine would probably be
more effective if I thought more about how it could benefit its
readers, and less about what it might do for my career. Where
"more effective" means mainly "more persuasive". But isn't
a more persuasive piece of writing likely to be better for my
career too? I think yes, but in the short term, I'm definitely
going to give more thought to the welfare of my readers, and
less to my self. What's my "ultimate" motivation here? Only
someone with an ideological axe to grind would worry.

I actually agree with the general trend of what you're saying, but (a)
I think it needs quite a bit more thought, and (b) as I said, I think
your use of "altruism" is wrong, in the sense that it actually
conflicts with the common use of the word, and therefore makes
communication of your ideas more difficult than it need be.