February 8, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Can Altruism Evolve?

Many animals cooperate; that’s an evolutionary puzzle itself. But how can evolution explain human charity to distant strangers?

Bird teamwork: A particularly lovely example of animal teamwork was described recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  It’s about formation flight in migrating birds. A European team outfitted a flock of Northern bald ibis with data loggers and observed how they fly in the classic V formation. The birds had been imprinted on ultralight aircraft so that they could be monitored in real time. The scientists observed the birds taking turns at the front, where more work is required (the birds behind gain lift from the upwash of air created by birds in front, 1/16/14). The scientists know this example of reciprocity is an enigma for evolution:

Cooperation in animals is an enigma because it contravenes the basic notion that evolution favors selfish genes that promote only their own well-being. Bird migration in organized V-shaped or echelon formations constitutes such a cooperation dilemma. We show that juvenile Northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita) cooperate by taking turns and precisely matching times they spend in the advantageous trailing position and in the disadvantageous front position. This time matching is done on a pairwise level. Furthermore, we found evidence that the animals’ propensity to reciprocate in leading has a substantial influence on the size and cohesion of the flight formations. This study shows that direct reciprocation can enable cooperation between animals in a natural context.

The story was mentioned by Science Magazine as a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” strategy, a “rare and ‘convincing example’ of reciprocal altruism in animals, the scientists say.” It’s remarkable that “The researchers’ analysis showed that the birds were working cooperatively, sportingly taking turns to lead and follow,” the article states. ” Indeed, the researchers discovered that the ibises precisely matched the amount of time spent in the lead and trailing positions regardless of their genetic relationship,” taking less than one second to switch positions on the wing.

Giving this behavior a name like “reciprocal altruism” doesn’t solve the enigma for evolution. To see why, we must avoid anthropomorphizing the birds. No evolutionist would impute reasoning to birds, such that they could logically think that taking turns makes “sense” for them. In evolutionary terms, all that matters is survival. If the lead bird has to work harder and dies, why should the trailing bird care? It gets to lay its eggs and hatch its young. If all the birds die, though, as they get stuck in the lead position one after one, the whole flock dies. Perhaps in that extreme case natural selection would favor some sort of cooperation. But it’s still enigmatic. If the lead bird survives, it should be fittest; the trailing birds might be the weaklings, unable to compete. There should be competition for the lead position, not cooperation. Or, they could go their separate ways, like racers on separate tracks; may the fittest bird win!

It’s hard to envision any force in unguided selection that would lead flying animals made of mere atoms to act this way. The controversial theory of “kin selection” doesn’t seem to apply, because genetically unrelated birds cooperated the same as siblings. The birds were apparently pre-programmed to engage in this sophisticated, well-timed behavior. All that an evolutionary biologist might be able to say is that the flocks that did cooperate in this way survived, and other flocks without the behavior perhaps did not. That, however, leaves unanswered what genetic mutations in the birds’ brains created the behavior in the first place. Did the mutation occur in just one bird? If so, how did it spread to the flock? Unless the birds all have the same behavioral strategy at the same time, it wouldn’t do any good.

New Scientist pointed out some additional enigmas with the ibises. The birds preferred a “buddy system” where pairs of birds would switch places alternately. But not always: birds would move throughout the formation. They would only spend about 10% of their time with a single individual. In addition, “some birds were more likely to pair with certain individuals than others, and that whether two birds were related had no effect on their likelihood of pairing up.”  The pair bonds in the air, furthermore, did not continue on the ground. One scientist gave only a generalized after-the-fact explanation: “the birds have evolved a form of cooperation specific to flight.” But how?

The Puzzle of Human Altruism

Altruism is more than cooperation. It’s more than “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Humans will give to complete strangers across the globe, with no expectation of return. Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Clearly, giving one’s life ends any possibility to pass on whatever trait made him do it, if altruism is to be reduced to mutation and selection. The “enigma” of true selfless altruism is exacerbated for evolutionary theory in such cases—but it has not stopped evolutionists from trying to explain it.

Because of Darwin’s tenet of universal common ancestry, evolutionists typically try to theorize a continuum of cooperation from bacteria to mammals, allowing no “leap” to humankind. One example is a press release from Harvard reproduced on Science Daily that tries to explain the difference between Mother Theresa, who sacrificially helped the poor in Calcutta who could not return the favor, and Sean Penn, who sent a film crew to rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina, an act criticized by some as a publicity stunt. What’s the difference? “Why did people evolve to be cooperative? And why in a principled way?” the headline asks (notice that evolution as a cause is assumed).  Harvard’s explanation puts a new spin on an old evolutionary trick: game theory. In game theory, selfish individuals might act altruistically when considering the costs and benefits involved.  It’s really disguised selfishness, in other words. Accordingly, game theorist Martin Nowak was unable to call one act good and the other bad. Strangely, though, in all his talk about motives, Nowak said nothing about evolution in terms of mutation and selection. The article just ends, “Most importantly, the authors hope, this model can bring principled behavior and authentic altruism out of the domain of philosophy and theology and provide an evolutionary explanation for these phenomena.” This suggests that they have no evolutionary explanation for altruism at this time.

New Books Try to Explain Altruism

1. In New Scientist, Kate Douglas reviews two books on altruism and asks, “What makes us altruistic – and what’s it good for?” One of the books doubts that altruism is real. In Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others, David Sloan Wilson argues the “contentious idea” that altruism is a product of group selection. It’s selfish, in short: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups,” he says. Douglas gets Wilson’s point: “In other words, we cooperate when doing so gives our team the edge. That doesn’t sound very selfless either.” But Wilson doesn’t mind; he’s looking at actions, not motives. The other book, The Altruistic Brain: How we are naturally good, by Donald W. Pfaff, assumes that it’s in our neural makeup to be kind. Douglas sees selfishness there, too: “Pfaff argues that to act altruistically you should first visualise the recipient of your goodwill, then mentally transform their image into your own, ‘from angle to angle and curve to curve’. How narcissistic!” Douglas seems to want to cling to the idea that true unselfishness exists, but doesn’t see it in either evolutionary explanation, although she finds Wilson’s theory more “cohesive and nuanced.” One has to wonder, though, whether David Sloan Wilson wrote the book to express a truth he really believes will aid human understanding, or had selfish motives.

2. Nature reviewed Sloan’s book and another new book by Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.  Reviewer Herbert Gintis states the problem in bold colors: our uniform experience of altruism vs. the “countervailing theory” that only selfishness exists:

We give to charity, vote for public education even when we have no children, and volunteer to fight and die in war. People conform to social norms even when no one is looking, and punish the antisocial behaviour of others even when it is costly to do so. Yet for decades, a countervailing theory has held in biology and economics.

Gintis points to Richard Dawkins and his concept of the “selfish gene” as an outmoded idea. The more recent theory of “inclusive fitness” he dismisses as “a pious wish of many population biologists that has never been validated in theory or fact.” What’s left for Darwin to do? Gintis prefers Sloan Wilson’s theory of “group fitness” over Shermer’s “speculative book” that tries to argue that altruism is a product of human reason and science. No one will be surprised by Shermer’s anti-religious stance: “He offers a defence of science and reason as emancipatory tools in the face of bigotry, pseudoscience and faith. He, too, argues that humans are basically moral and cooperative, but adds that they are parochial.” But Shermer is “mistaken“, Gintis says, “in thinking that truth, freedom and justice are the inevitable by-products of scientific advance.” So are guns and bombs.

But where’s the evolutionary explanation? In his concluding warnings about totalitarian regimes, Gintis forgot to tell how mutation and natural selection created a Mother Theresa.

Evolutionists are worse than clueless about altruism: they are anti-logical. Their views undermine not only altruism, but their own foundations for trying to explain it. First, the cluelessness: nothing they said in any of these articles explains true altruism. We all know what altruism is. We have been its beneficiaries, and many have been practitioners (hopefully most). Those who have experienced it know in their gut that they chose to do so; no selfish gene or mutation drove them to it. Yet over and over, the reductionists in the Darwin Party insist that altruism is a phantom, a behavior foisted upon our neurons by a long train of aimless accidents. OK, how? They fumble around: maybe it was group selection. Maybe it was kin selection. Maybe it was inclusive fitness. Maybe it’s a cost-benefit game. “More research is needed. Keep that funding flowing!” Their game theories talk about cheaters and defectors. They need to look in the mirror and say, “We have found the cheater, and it is us.”

Second, the anti-logic. Any theory that “explains” altruism as a phantom of mutation and selection simultaneously “explains” every other human behavior, such as writing books. We can therefore dismiss Michael Shermer, David Sloan Wilson and Donald Pfaff as selfish puppets of selfish genes, acting in accordance with their innate desires to reproduce. They may imagine themselves attempting to altruistically add to human understanding in their theories, but they are really just selfish prigs trying to outcompete us in the struggle for existence. We can therefore ignore everything they say and fight them as competitors. They need to hop on their Pogo sticks and say, “We have found the enemy, and it is us.”

But perhaps the best way to win the explanatory contest is to show them true Christian charity. Giving them a Bible with a bookmark at John 3:16 would be a start. Try this: next time one of them has a serious illness or hardship, send them a card to say you are praying for them. Donate to their care if you can. Nobody can evolutionize away the teachings of Jesus, “I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-48).

As for the cooperation of migrating birds, who says their behavior evolved? Having falsified Darwinism for human altruism, we can take off the Darwin glasses and look at the world anew. It makes sense that the Creator who loved us enough to die for us was wise enough to outfit all his creatures with behavioral programs that can also  serve, in many cases, as object lessons for us.


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  • mody says:

    Now , please ….( the creator ……die ) is an oxymoron ….
    That is why atheists exist .

  • rockyway says:

    “Most importantly, the authors hope, this model can bring principled behavior and authentic altruism out of the domain of philosophy and theology and provide an evolutionary explanation for these phenomena.”

    – Hope? What’s hope in terms of physics? Any person who has experienced hope has a good reason for rejecting materialism, as it’s not explicable in terms of physics.

    “Pfaff argues that to act altruistically you should first visualise the recipient of your goodwill, then mentally transform their image into your own, ‘from angle to angle and curve to curve

    – Should? Notice how the materialist, who claims to have ‘transcended’ the folk knowledge of theology and philosophy always smuggles it back in. (Moral ideals and duties are aliens in a universe of matter in motion.)

    ‘Nature reviewed Sloan’s book and another new book by Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.

    – How can the study of the universe (which is what science is) provide one with moral truth? Science is the study of what is… not the study of what should be.

    ‘No one will be surprised by Shermer’s anti-religious stance: “He offers a defence of science and reason as emancipatory tools in the face of bigotry, pseudoscience and faith.

    – For that to even begin to make sense human beings would have to have free will… but this is what materialism denies, as it insists everything in the universe ‘dances’ to the laws of physics. (I’m not aware that matter has any desire to be ’emancipated’ by the way.)

    – For Shermer to maintain his claim that ‘religion’ is a bad thing he needs to define it in such a way that his own Humanism isn’t considered a religion. (This despite the insistence of the previous generation of Humanists that it was.) The trouble with definition is that it is inherently religious… in that it depends upon basic worldview assumptions. There is no such thing as generic definition – people define things in terms of their own worldviews. When the atheist (of today) claims that secular humanism isn’t a religion he’s defining religion in terms of materialism.

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