Friday, March 06, 2015

"The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism" - Robert L. Trivers

Way too many people still waste everyone's time by falsely averring that the existence of altruism is a challenge and a puzzle to evolutionists. I re-read Robert Trivers classic paper: "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism" and share with you the following observations.

  1. This is a model of how to write a paradigm-changing paper. It's an easy read, conceptually clear and comprehensive. You owe it to yourself to click on the link and give it a try.

  2. In a sense, it's a statement of the blindingly obvious, particularly when Trivers discusses human altruism and the psychological mechanisms underlying it (friendship, dislike, gratitude, moralistic aggression, sympathy). It is, however, a testament to the systematic confusion and obfuscation of prior intellectual elites that Trivers had to restate and reframe the obvious to clear away an edifice of tendentious, muddle-headed thinking. On second thoughts, you may delete the word 'prior' above: an evolutionist's work is truly never done.

  3. Trivers suggested that the arms race between altruists and cheaters (doves vs. hawks if you like) is so complex, with strategies and counter-strategies and counter-counter-strategies, that it may have been a major driver for human-level intelligence. I'm not sure this intriguing idea has really been explored to date.

Trivers' first case study- 'Altruistic Behaviour in Cleaning Symbioses' - carefully removes issues of kin-selection and inclusive fitness by considering between-species altruism. He then considers the puzzling case of bird alarm calls (which seem to put the calling bird in special danger) and shows that a bird warning non-kin still has a selective advantage over the cheating non-warner. Finally we get to the human condition, where his apparently commonplace observations are subtly situated within a carefully-argued evolutionary framework.

Going forwards, there has to be scope for a genetic level of analysis based on GWAS research. Is altruism normally distributed (many genes of small effect)? Is there evidence of multi-modal distributions based on distinct evolutionarily stable strategies (crudely, sociopaths vs. the prosocial)?

For evidence that people's natural instincts and inclinations do not naturally align with Darwinian thinking, review these comments at West Hunter.