In the style of news programmes these days, under his name banner across the screen was the role the programme had allocated him. It was the one word: ‘Hero’.
The presenter then raised the question as to why the hero had risked his life in this way. The mother and child were unrelated to him - no genetic advantage seemed to be involved. This was posed to the pundit, a ‘professor in evolutionary biology’ from Imperial College.
The professor gave his opinion that altruism was a ‘mistake’. Brain circuitry which was meant to help closely-related kin had been ‘hijacked’ by these individuals.
I cringed again.
I’ve seen this reductionist argument over and over. It cannot be right. A kin-based altruism which kept making mistakes would have been powerfully-selected against. There is a much better explanation based on the fact that we can’t easily recognise kin.
The same textbooks which have a problem with altruism often observe that children brought up together from a young age observe the incest taboo - they do not form sexual associations, even if genetically unrelated. Why is this relevant? Because we do not have inbuilt DNA-testers, we cannot easily determine our degree of social relatedness to others. We use social-proximity cues to proxy for (close or not-so-close) kin-relatedness.
Most analysts concur that our ‘environment of evolutionary adaptedness’ was an extended kin-group of up to 120 members. In such a group, a random pair of individuals have relatively low genetic overlap and certainly cannot determine the degree of relatedness by observation: the basis of altruism is therefore Trivers’ reciprocal altruism (but based on kin-group selection) as we shall now examine.
Psychologically we have strong emotional drives to identify with a group, and such identification produces a constellation of ‘loyal’ behaviours including altruistic heroism. In a harsh world, the extended kin-group could not cohere and survive without strong loyalties.
if we stir into the mix:
- strong selection pressure for kin-groups expressing in-group loyalty against those with weak social ties;
- the learned nature of who is in the group;
There, how hard was that?
PS. OK, I concede that maybe that was what the professor really meant: it's hard to make any kind of argument when you're restricted to 45 seconds. Still, it came across as stupid. Sorry!