Friday, November 19, 2010

Sociobiology and Altruism

According to the new school of Darwinian thought all humans are essentially selfish creatures. Sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins believe that all acts of human altruism are a thin veneer that disguises an essential selfish nature. Altruism in a sociobiological context could be defined as the behavior by an animal that may be disadvantageous to it, but that benefits others of its kind. For the Sociobiologist, all such altruistic actions simply seem unselfish, but actually supply the agent with some evolutionary advantage, i.e. aids them in their pursuit of food or offers increased chances at reproduction. However, Sociobiologists like Wilson and Dawkins are the first to admit that altruism is difficult to explain; acts of true altruism cannot exist in their theory because such acts damage a person’s chances of acquiring more food and sex: aiding another to survive in the struggle for life means one more competitor in the conspecific war of all against all, and amounts to a decrease in available food and potential mates for the altruistic actor.

An example of altruistic behavior in animals can be seen in the submission signals sent by humans, dogs, and many other species that tend to terminate fights between conspecifics before they result in death, like a dog that rolls onto its back and exposes its throat to an adversary. For the sociobiologist, such behavior is puzzling: why wouldn’t one dog immediately tear the throat out of the other, thus eliminating a competitor for both food and sex? Another example is the phenomenon of “baby snatching” observable in some primate species where a bereaved mother kidnaps another female’s baby, adopting it as for its own. For the sociobioligist such behavior makes little evolutionary sense, the kidnapper not only wastes her own time to bring someone else’s genes to maturity, but also frees a rival female from raising the young and to mate that much sooner. The problem for the sociobiologist is why don’t all species always fight to maim or kill, or why don’t mothers welcome baby snatchers?

In an earlier argument I mentioned that human society, when it reaches a certain level of sophistication, always develops specialized castes: warrior, priest and doctors, all of which are inconsistent with the siciobiological belief that humans are essentially selfish. A soldier risks increased chances of being maimed or killed in battle; priests often take on oaths of celibacy, fasting, and self-mortification; doctors try to improve the sick, injured and diseased. The practitioners of these trades receive no evolutionary advantage for serving others, and know this when they when they enter one of these professions; most of us would say that they do so because they are moral people.

Many proponents of the selfish theory of the individual might respond by saying that human morality is itself simply a veneer that was, at some point in the past, grafted onto a selfish human society, either by priests, or Kings, or law givers, as a way of manipulating the masses for the benefit of the few. Such arguments, however, must always have as their starting point ideas of shame or pride. If human society, at some long forgotten point in the past, was essentially selfish, a war of all against all completely lacking in any sort of morality, then the very notions of honorable or shameful, good or bad, would simply not exist and could not ever have been intelligible, even by the sneakiest of priests or the most savvy of politicians. Trying to do so would amount to trying to explain to a fish what it’s like to breath air: no frame of reference is possible.

Those who believe that altruism and morality are mere veneers that cover a selfish human nature often cite cases of extreme deprivation in order to prove their case – of shipwreck survivors killing one their number and eat them to survive, of political prisoners who turn over their accomplices under extreme torture, and etc. Those who believe in a selfish human nature think that these are instances proving the veneer theory: that under extreme duress the true nature of humanity is revealed. One might respond with the same experiments on rats, placing several in a glass cage and submitting one to prolonged torture. After a short time, when the tortured rat sees you coming he will do anything to avoid you and try to hide in the only place it can, under or behind one of its fellows. Now this rat is displaying the same behavior that a human might display under the same circumstances, yet we don’t say that the rat, an imminently social animal, is displaying its “true” moral nature that rat society has been disguising: rats have neither morality nor society. Such experiments do suggest that something is being removed, but what? David Stowe argues that what is stripped away in these extreme cases is biological rather than cultural, “the successive layers of biological development which is natural to our species between infancy and mature adulthood” (Stow. Darwinian Fairytales, 111). Stowe argues that in these extreme examples humans revert to something like infancy and has the benefit of better explaining behavior seen in all mammals, than does the sociobiological one, and he may be right.

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