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

Wright, James 7929 (
Mon, 21 Apr 97 11:25:00 EDT

Martz wrote:
<Snip definition of altruism discussion>
>>Are you willing to accept, as a possibility that altruism, as you have
>>defined it, doesn't exist?[RK]
>I can't speak for Robin but I've been arguing that very same point for
>years. Altruism, where it includes the notion of selflessness [1] (and
>it is included in the definitions of *most* people that I've come
>across) does not exist.<
I disagree;
> It is a wholly unnatural state, conjured up by
>people who have been conned into the notion of some higher power to
>convince themselves that they're heaven-bound.<
I find Deity and higher-power notions unnecessary.
>>Perhaps that is a false category, or perhaps
>>the definition ascribes an incorrect "intent" to the altruist? Let's
>>that the "strong" altruism which you have defined (by this I mean true
>>literally and in essence) turns out to be a misinterpretation of a lot
>>observations...a (I learned this word on this list...I love you guys)
>I can accept that possibility, but I still reckon it's people fooling
>themselves rather than being fooled by observations.<
Be careful; the possibility of overlooking an occurrence that's really
there is also common.
<Snip a bit>
>>How about this:
>>Obviously we behave in ways that appear "altruistic" the sense
that we
>>can engage in trade,[RK]
>I don't see how that appears altruistic. Trade is generally motivated by
>an idea of mutual gain.
I also reject the need for trade involvement in a definition of altruism.
<Snip a bit>
>>Sometimes this willingness to place small bets
>>on the future evolves into a system of true "altruism" where we
>>without expecting return, or sacrifice and forget about it. [RK}
>Again, while the *semblance* may be there I don't see any 'true
>altruism'. As a species we are inclined to match behaviour that we see
>around us. Our social nature encourages us to fit in, at least broadly,
>with what society expects of us. If that inspires us to acts of charity
>it is only because we don't want to be cast as unusual or unfit.<
It *may* be because we want to fit in; that may not be the only motive
for charity, either.
>>There are
>>examples of humans behaving as martyrs for various causes and these
>>a general tendency among humans to be more or less cooperative.
>Agreed. Because for our species it confers survival advantage - a
>selfish motivation.
My gracious, you have a pessimistic opinion of humanity! (Not that I
favor martyrdom, for any reason).
<Snip a lot>
>>I'm not, though, arguing that becuase we are self-interested in nature
>>are doomed to be selfish in behavior.
>I think we are. Wholly selfish. Any benefit conferred to others is just
>a product of that.<
I think I can generate a counter-example, and will try to, below.
<Snip a lot>
>[1] 'Selfish' is a word that traditionally carries some negative
>connotations. I'd just like to make it clear that none of these are
>intended when I use it. Concern for self is just about the most natural
>act I can think of.<
Perhaps the most natural; not the only possible motive, I would contend.
Walking through the grocery store about six months ago, I was leafing
through my coupons (Save thirty cents the next time you buy Fred's
Shredded Wheat Cereal!) when I noticed a coupon lying on the shelf, next
to the cereal. Looking closely, I saw that it was a better coupon than
the one I had; it offered fifty cents off per box, where mine only
offered thirty. The grocery would not leave a single copy of such a
coupon laying on the shelf next to the product; it would reduce their
revenues (minutely) due to handling costs. The only explanation I could
come up with was that some other customer had left it there.
Looking closer, the expiration date was that day. Whoever left it didn't
want/need/have to use it, and left it there, so it would be used instead
of going to waste. I saved another forty cents (the difference, doubled
by store policy). I have no way of knowing who left it, and they had no
way of knowing who would pick it up, or indeed whether it would be used
before it expired at all.
Does this (admittedly small) act qualify as altruism in your view?
Thanks for a thoughtfully-written post.