Monday, 29 March 2010

is altruism really always self-interested?


Economics is a one-idea discipline: incentives work. All the rest is engineering. Perhaps the arrogance of economists come from the fact that this idea sometimes seems exclusive to their discipline. Anyway, incentives work. Or to put it perhaps more controversially (and truthfully) incentives are the only thing that work... If so, then behaviour patterns that are the product of evolution but which appear altruistic must be either (a) a mistake, or (b) ultimately self-interested.

Society-thinkers have long been perplexed by the act of 'goodness'. Social engineers seize on the human propensity to be good to others to build institutions. But theorists keep scratching their heads. There is something fishy here. People seem to be good - sometimes, at least - even when it is not in their interest.

The first explanation posited a biological concept of altruism, based on the observation that animals seemed to be 'good' primarily towards their kin. Although altruistic (or more precisely: seemingly-altruistic) behaviour is widespread in the biological world, it all but disappears once genetic relationships are accounted for. It is the selfish gene that drives kin-selection. (For people of my generation these concepts are obvious. Thus it was very educating to read Lee Alan Dugatkin's book on the history of the biological concept [1], just to be reminded that concepts that we take for granted have not been 'the truth' for long...)

Yet, there is something else: some other kind of altruistic behaviour, widespread especially among humans, which cannot be explained by kin-selection. Being good to somebody else with whom one has a very distant genetic relationship, without any reason whatsoever, just should not happen under the biological theories. Social altruism was thus left unexplained.

One group of theorists suggest that the explanation lies in group selection. The trouble is that group selection is very unlikely to have happened due to a set of mathematical properties. (Although I have been raised in the school that allows for group selection, sadly and literally, 'after much consideration', I must turn against the tradition in which I was brought up and leave this path to the philosophers...)

So we are left with a truly social phenomenon.

Enter the economists... Game theory provides a brilliant set of models about reciprocity and reputation. (For an overview and some models, see [2] and [3].) First, you are likely to be 'altruistic' to others if you expect that they will return the favour in the future.  A two-person insurance pool. Second, you might see it as advantageous to acquire a reputation of being altruistic, if that makes people be more altruistic towards you when you are in need: reputation facilitates indirect reciprocity. This allows a much wider insurance pool. (The cynic must admit though that a good way to be seen as an altruist is probably to be one.)

These biological and societal explanations span a field in which altruism acquires a particular set of attributes.

One. There is nothing altruistic in altruism. Altruism is either not altruistic at all (kin selection), or it is kind-of altruistic, but with expectations about eventually receiving something in return (reciprocity).  Or it is about pretending to be altruistic in a very self-interested way (reputation). The idea of economics, that incentives work, prevails...

Two. Structure is conspicuously missing from the models, especially when it comes to human groups. Unless I have missed that part of the literature, it seems that the models out there discuss altruistic behaviour regarding 'others in general', rather than others as in 'other people of a particular group of a particular structure'. It would make a lot of sense to try to model the evolution of social altruism as an element of group dynamics.

Group-level modelling would allow us to understand much more of the variation in altruistic behaviour that can be observed. For instance, why did some people during World War Two risk their lives to save Jews that they had never met, even in a foreign country, while others did not do anything. Was Wallenberg really a selfless altruist, or was he rather a member of a particular society with a framework of norms within which his altruistic behaviour could be interpreted. To put it as controversially as possible: was Wallenberg accumulating his reputation capital? The space for discussion of evolving reference groups in the era of societal globalisation would be infinitely large...


[1] Dugatkin, L.A., (2006), The Altruism Equation (Princeton). Link: The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness

[2] Nowak, M.A. and K. Sigmund, (2005), Evolution of indirect reciprocity, Nature. Link: Evolution of indirect reciprocity

[3] Elreath, R., and R. Boyd, (2007), Mathematical Models of Social Evolution, (Chicago). Link: Mathematical Models of Social Evolution: A Guide for the Perplexed