clearly there can be/are probably many different types of altruism genes present in varying frequencies in different human populations — possibly some are not even found at all in some populations.
“genes for altruism” are obviously a good thing, at least in some circumstances, otherwise they wouldn’t be around. but it is possible to have too much of a good thing. (except for chocolate.)
it seems that too many “sib altruism” genes in high concentrations means that you wind up with clannish or tribal societies, which might be great in some places and at some times, but they tend to hinder the development of a modern, liberal, democratic society — if that is your aim.
otoh, perhaps too few “sib altruism” genes means your society weakens too much at the seams and starts to unravel. perhaps too many “genes for reciprocal altruism” can get your society in trouble, especially if it comes up against strong tribalistic societies.
a while back, john quoted this passage from bill hamilton:
“The incursions of barbaric pastoralists seem to do civilizations less harm in the long run than one might expect. Indeed, two dark ages and renaissances in Europe suggest a recurring pattern in which a renaissance follows an incursion by about 800 years. It may even be suggested that certain genes or traditions of pastoralists revitalize the conquered people with an ingredient of progress which tends to die out in a large panmictic population for the reasons already discussed. I have in mind altruism itself, or the part of the altruism which is perhaps better described as self-sacrificial daring. By the time of the renaissance it may be that the mixing of genes and cultures (or of cultures alone if these are the only vehicles, which I doubt) has continued long enough to bring the old mercantile thoughtfulness and the infused daring into conjunction in a few individuals who then find courage for all kinds of inventive innovation against the resistance of established thought and practice. Often, however, the cost in fitness of such altruism and sublimated pugnacity to the individuals concerned is by no means metaphorical, and the benefits to fitness, such as they are, go to a mass of individuals whose genetic correlation with the innovator must be slight indeed. Thus civilization probably slowly reduces its altruism of all kinds, including the kinds needed for cultural creativity (see also Eshel 1972).”
like pretty much every paragraph written by hamilton, there are at least five original ideas here and about ten really interesting side notes. (~_^)
one thing: hamilton suggests that the occasional invasion by tribal barbarians may be a good thing for civilizations since they prolly introduce some fresh altruism genes into aged societies in which the altruism genes have been watered down too much. that’s probably correct (i can’t see why it wouldn’t be); however, i have been thinking for some time now that a society with watered down altruism genes ought to be able to get back to a more altruistic state simply by stepping up its internal inbreeding a bit. i think that should work, provided there are enough altruism genes left in the population and they haven’t (almost) all been deselected (if that’s the right way of putting it).
problem is, this is not a quick fix. it might take a few generations to get your society back to where you want it to be. and, of course, with too much close inbreeding you run the risk of developing high concentrations of “sib altruism” genes in certain lineages, yada, yada, yada. so you’ve got to know how to inbreed AND when to stop. (don’t ask me what the ideals are!)
also, since it’s quite possible/likely that different populations may have different altruism genes, it’s not certain that any given failing civilization would necessarily want the altruism genes of whatever barbarian group happened to turn up on its doorstep. the barbarians might bring some good altruism genes (just what the doctor ordered!) — then again, they might bring some wacko genes that no one in their right mind would want. in other words, it might be good to choose your barbarian invasion wisely.
another thing (from that hamilton paragraph above): “Often, however, the cost in fitness of such altruism and sublimated pugnacity to the individuals concerned is by no means metaphorical, and the benefits to fitness, such as they are, go to a mass of individuals whose genetic correlation with the innovator must be slight indeed.”
this goes back to something i pointed out in an oversimplification: i.e. that wildly altruistic people inevitably wind up benefitting all sorts of people to whom they are unrelated. sure they might be altruistic to a great number of people with whom they share genes in common, but they also might help a great number of people to whom they are unrelated — which is a bit of a FAIL, actually. if you’re keeping score, that is. (and Mother Nature is, btw.)
in my imagined scenario (in my oversimplifed model), the extremely altruistic individuals wound up helping twice as many unrelated individuals as related individuals. i don’t know if that ever really happens in real life, but as we saw earlier today, there are some individuals out there in the world — perhaps especially in the western world — who really go out of their way to help unrelated individuals. it’s very nice of them … but where will it get them in the end?
too much altruism?
previously: four things and which altruism genes? and technical stuff
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