Altruism is Dead, Long Live Altruism

Key Questions:

-What was the standard theory for social behavior and altruism taught at a well respected US public institution circa 2001?

-How can a shared information system be a driver of social behavior and altruism?

At the end of last weeks post, I developed a bit of wordlust (writings version of bloodlust). I meant to end the post something like, “At least the biosphere does not grieve pulsing.” Instead, that sentence pushed me into a rant on altruism and grief. I decided to move back the Burning of Rome and instead refine my thoughts on altruism, social behavior, and community.

Darwin Travels 65,000 km (40,000 miles) and Forgets to Bring a Single Macroscope

Alturism is a central paradox of Darwinism. It would seem impossible for natural selection to favor an allele that results in behavior benefiting other individuals at the expense of the individual bearing the allele. For Darwin (1859:236), the apparent existence of alturism presented a “special difficulty, which at first appeared to me insuperable, and actually fatal to my whole theory.” Fortunately he was able to hint at a resolution to the paradox: Selection could favor traits that result in decreased personal fitness if they increase the survival and reproductive success of close relatives Over a hundred years passed, however, before this result was formalized and widely applied.” (Evolutionary Analysis, Prentice Hall, pg 332)

The answer to Darwin’s problem as taught to Biology majors in 2001 was kin selection. The main idea of kin selection is that altruistic behavior arises because individuals will most likely act in an altruistic manor towards those that are most related to the altruistic actor.  An altruistic actor can benefit kin from either slow geographical dispersion, ie an animal will be closest to those it was born to or with, or from some intrinsic signal to help identify kin, eg pheromones. An actual test question and answer taken straight from the power point presentation from that class went something like this: Explain how altruistic behavior can arise in a population? (You may use a diagram to help explain)

kin selection

In the figure above one can see that populations often splinter based on geographical and environmental reasons. Initially, the population was made up of 15% altruistic individuals. Due to some factor the populations split and to dramatize all the altruistic individuals fall into one sub-population and none in the other. The altruistic sub-population grows by 20% due to the presence of the altruistic allele, while the other population has limited population growth. Further, altruistic acts are most likely to affect closely related kin in the sub-populations thus perpetuating the altruistic allele. The sub-populations again merge and now the altruistic allele makes up 16% of the total population. Rinse, wash and repeat until altruism is widespread.

Beekeepers Have Names for Sociopaths: Queens and Drones

In the textbook Evolutionary Analysis, the authors spend about three pages trying to use kin selection as the explanatory basis for eusocial behavior in bees. They show how a queen who mates with a single drone will produce non-mating sisters that are more closely related to each other than to queens or drones so this is why they cooperate, however, in the end conclude that this actually isn’t true for most eusocial insects. The queens mate with multiple drones, which results in non-mating eusocial sisters who may not be more closely related to each other than to the queens.

The above explanation glosses over the advantages of the hive and social behavior. The advantage is the ability to utilize the efficiencies of information when it is shared between individuals. Traditionally, most organisms on Earth rely on the information stored in DNA and RNA or pay a high cost to create information de novo every generation to survive (Figure 2 bottom right). If one were to dissect a hive, it is easy to see that most of the individuals in the hive are involved at one time or another in the collecting and sharing of information to exploit resources like nectar, pollen, hive building materials, and locating new hive locations. This allows bees to focus more energy on resource exploitation than high cost information collection. Hives using shared information have lower costs than if each individual were responsible for finding/creating information (Figure 2 top left). This is particularly advantageous when pollen and nectar sources are constantly changing by the day, so the costs of each individual acquiring information on their own could quickly mount. Queens and drones on the other hand must be kept to a minimum because they neither collect nor share real time information (Figure 2 top right and bottom left). In a hive, there must be enough workers bees sharing information to reap the rewards of low cost communication of information and utilizing a resource versus the costs of finding new information and supporting a colony’s queens and drones.

benefit of shared informationFigure 2

An additional key feature of social behavior and the reason altruism exists is that all stores of information and capital need protection. This protection can be from factors such as random depreciation or resource competitors. In the case of DNA, there are certain parts of the DNA polymerase complex involved in excising improper base pairing that naturally occurs during DNA replication (Figure 3 left). Odum in EPS talks about how police in modern society act to stop the depreciation of physical capital from thieves or vandals (Figure 3 middle). For bees, they defend the hive to the death in order to ensure there are enough individuals and stores of honey to maintain a healthy population to benefit from shared information (Figure 3 right).


Figure 3

Promiscuous Monkeys and Altruism

Altruism presents another evolutionary conundrum: why is altruism so promiscuous? There are examples of gorrillas saving little boys or recently divers saving dolphins. If you have not seen these videos, watch them. When you are a social animal, there is an underlying urge to feel something when confronted by acts of altruism. All social animals want to perform an altruistic act.  Try not to feel something while watching, if you can.

To explain this phenomena, you would need to take an extended five year vacation to the Amazonian Rainforest with a notebook and pair of binoculars. There you will sit with your notebook recording the mating rituals of all sorts of species of monkeys. You note the size, color, and noise patterns of the males and females, known as sexual dimorphism, in relation to how many times a species of monkey makes an attempted mating with either the opposite or same sex of monkey. Your findings will be as follows: the less the sexual dimorphism (males and females look the same), the more times a monkey will mate with its own sex and conversely the greater the sexual dimorphism, the fewer times a monkey will mate with its own sex (Figure 4). There are two good explanations for the ways that these monkeys mate. The first is that when a body plan is under high selection due to predation which reduces sexual dimorphism, it makes sense to mate first and ask questions later. Secondly, mating with everyone can be a great strategy to promote social behavior and not being able to distinguish potential mating partners increases social behavior.


Figure 4

No matter which explanation for the monkeys’ behaviors is true, it is informative to why altruism is so promiscuous. When social animals look at each other, it is hard to tell who holds what information that might be important for survival. If you look at the back cover of EPS in the 21st Century, there is a picture of HT Odum (Figure 5). It might be easy to guess from the picture he is good at tending a small garden, but to surmise that he is the father of Emergy theory, no way. There is no red or green light on our foreheads to inform each other who knows what and so who should be saved. Importantly, would Odum be more likely to help my long term survival as an amazing creator of humus or a great thinker of Emergy Theory?  Social animals have an evolutionary mandate to: preserve information first and ask questions later.  The greater the importance of shared information for survival, the greater the amount of social behavior and altruism (Figure 6).

HT OdumFigure 5

Importance of shared information for survivalFigure 6

Darwin Peers through the Macroscope

Why does the hand feed the mouth? Why does the gene DNA polymerase copy other unrelated genes? Why does social behavior and altruism exist to benefit others? The answer to all of these questions is that: they are parts of a whole system. In each case a seemingly selfless action increases the fitness of itself. The hand feeds the mouth and gains nutrition. DNA polymerase copies other genes and those other genes help DNA polymerase function. Social behavior and altruism exist to help others maintain, collect, process, and share information and benefit the social altruistic actor.

Individual Action:

-Share information. Do it freely and free whenever possible.

-Sharing information includes genetic information. Preferably rare plant seeds, scion wood, and livestock. Not through the swapping of more human DNA, we are not rare and bizarrely closely related.

-Be weary of sociopaths that hoard information.

Next time: Our Humpty Dumpty Communities


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