Saturday, December 6, 2008

Is it altruistic to admit you were wrong?

Recently a famous biologist, E.O. Wilson, did one of the most courageous things a scientist can do: he admitted he was wrong. Wilson, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of On Human Nature and The Diversity of Life, had long been in the forefront of a debate on why we find altruism in nature and his recent break from the past is being received with mixed emotions.

Altruism, the unselfish consideration of others regardless of the cost to you, has been a major topic for debate among ecologists for decades. It seems strange that such a benign topic like altruism has been able to stir up ecologists to the point where words such as “baldface liar” have been uttered but there’s a good reason for that. For a full century, they couldn’t figure out why altruism should even occur in nature in the first place. The question even baffled the father of evolution himself, Charles Darwin.

The natural world is full of animals doing things with no apparent benefit to themselves. Worker bees can be found collecting resources and protecting their nests on behalf of others. Wolves will bring meat back to the pack and share with others that didn’t help in the kill.

These examples long puzzled ecologists because it should never be a good survival strategy to be altruistic in nature. Imagine a poker game between two people. One person plays the game normally and the other is an altruistic person who, when he wins a hand, splits his winnings with his opponent. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize the altruistic player will always lose! In fact, the normal player would win even if he was at a table with many altruists. Altruism is clearly a bad strategy in poker and it was long thought to be a bad strategy in ecology. Ecologists figured self-interest was the only way to survive. To be fair, they’re not the only ones that thought this, economics is still based the fact that people will make decisions based entirely on self-interest.

In the 1960’s ecologists and biologists hit on two answers. One answer was that related individuals (siblings, cousins, etc.) should act altruistically because they share many of the same genes. It would be like playing poker and sharing your chips with a sibling because you wanted someone from your family to win. This is the view E.O. Wilson espoused for a long time and the reason why worker bees work for nothing; they are putting their “chips” in with the queen (to whom they are strongly related) and let her do all the reproducing.

The other explanation, and the one that Wilson is now firmly standing behind, explains altruism by saying that it makes sense when competition between two groups is stronger than the competition within the group. A crude example would be that of a hockey team where all players compete individually (contracts and personal glory) and the team competes against other teams (winning). If the coach told the team that no player would get their bonus if they didn’t make the playoffs, the players would be more willing to play as a team and overlook their individual interests because the competition with other teams would become more important than their personal interests.

We have, therefore, two different explanations of altruism is nature. Do these two theories explain human altruism? Certainly we act more altruistically toward family because we see each other as part of the same whole. New mothers also often describe their newborns as being a little piece of themselves. There are also groups that band together and treat each altruistically in order to achieve bigger goals such as labour unions.

There are, however, some forms of human altruism that defy both of these theories. These actions, I would argue, are part of what makes us distinctly human because they create altruism where, ecologically, none should exist. A good example of this would be the $31 billion charitable donation (85% of his wealth) that investor Warren Buffett made to The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation in 2006; the biggest donation of its kind. But altruistic actions don’t necessarily need to be that grandiose. A small action like helping an elderly woman with her groceries is also a case of genuine altruism. Both of these cases involve helping unrelated people who are not part of the same social group and both, I feel, are the pinnacle of humanity.

However, while some acts of altruism, such as charity, are deeply respected and admired, there are others that are equally demanding that go unnoticed or are even shunned. This brings me back to the beginning of the article. When E.O. Wilson admitted he thought he was wrong about his previous theories on altruism, he was being altruistic himself. After all, admitting you’re wrong about something usually incurs a cost of some kind and it is done for some greater good. Which makes me wonder, especially during this provincial election campaign, why politicians don’t ever seem to admit they were wrong? I’ll leave you to come to your own conclusions!

Appeared in the November 26, 2008 edition of the Brome County News

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