Dealing with altruism,
Darwin1 recognizes that the selfish individuals are favored by evolution.
At the same time, he has no doubts "that a tribe including many members
who, from possessing in high degree the spirit of patriotism and fidelity,
obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to ea
ch other and sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious
over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection".
This is puzzling and Darwin lets us down, laments Cronin2, suspecting
group selectionism which she ridicules ("greater-goodism") and,
joining Hamilton, concludes that Darwin dealt with human altruism, saw
the problem, discussed it, but left it unsolved.
I assume that the discussion between individual selectionists, such as
Dawkins 3, and the new-breed of group selectionists , D.S. Wilson4 or
Sober, is well known. Whereas individual selectionists conclude that the
number of altruists in a group must decrease, the group selections agree
that this is so of isolated groups, but argue that when there are two
or more groups with different ratios of altruists to egoists, the total
number of altruists in all groups increases.
I suggest that in some important respects the difference between the views
of individual and group selectionists is irrelevant, because a third more
powerful mechanism in humans ,meta-selection, is at play. What I mean
by meta-selection is a higher-level-selection, such as when a breeder
decides which quality ,e.g., altruism or egoism, to breed. If the breeder
chooses one or the other, it is irrelevant whether individual or
group selection theory is right. I admit that there is no higher power
in human society such as a breeder to do meta-selection. However, there
is an equivalent power at work, and that is the group as- a-whole. Through
group dynamics leadership emerges which becomes relatively independent
and prescribes and forces certain behaviors for the good of the group
the leadership conceives it) , which differ from those the members would
manifest were they governed by their own inclinations. The leadership
manages to demand altruistic behavior andgives actual or symbolic social
rewards, or promises of future rewards,
such as eternal life. But there is always a precarious balance between
the leadership and the rest of the group or population. For example, the
government demands that its citizens risk their lives in war, but if there
were losses in Gulf War as great as those suffered by the Napoleonic army,
the government would not survive.
I propose that the leadership has an important role throughout the evolution
of humans in social exchange, which is one of the most important aspects
of social dynamics. People have a concept and strong interest in balanced
exchange, i.e., exchanging equivalent values, and in detecting those who
cheat. Leda Cosmides5 assumes that this is a Darwinian algorithm. I believe
it is, even though Cosmides' supporting experiments may not be as convincing
as she thinks. Almost all people believe in fair or just exchange, but
tend to exaggerate the value of their
The algorithm of social exchange is pre-programmed by evolution, but who
programs the equivalencies of values which are, as is well known, so different
at different times and circumstances? Who determines what is fair and
just exchange? Here the leadership holds the key role, defining the equivalencies
"for the good of the
group", but also in such a way as to advantage themselves. For example,
in the first great empires rulers were allowed to have 1000 concubines.
That was accepted as just and fair, though it was obviously at the expense
of 1000 male altruists (as defined by sociobiology), presumably without
them being altruistically inclined. What kind of individuals does the
leadership favor? Throughout the ages, It favors those who accept the
equivalencies as defined by the leadership, that is, individuals who are
flexible to accept what the leadership defines as just and fair. This
phenomenon has regressive and
progressive features, as the history of Germans in this century shows.
Although mostly Christians, the majority was swayed by the Nazi ideology
to accept the cruelties of anti-Semitism. To be so flexible, one needs
to be endowed with a propensity to repress, with a "social filter"
(E. Fromm), which blinds one to the discrepancies in one's beliefs. However,
after the War the German nation, as it seems, relatively quickly rejected
the Nazi ideology. In general, those who rebel from the social consensus
as defined and enforced by the leadership are minorities on two ends of
the spectrum: on the altruistic end are those
fighting for the rights of the underprivileged, and on the egoistic end
are those who ignore fair exchange or grossly misinterpret it, such as
the criminals. The progress of human society rests in flattening the hierarchical
pyramid towards a state in which everybody has some influence on defining
the social exchange rules, without jeopardizing the welfare of the social
system as a whole.
The main point of this essay is to introduce the possibilitythat group
as a whole performs meta-selection. In the highest primates, the evolution
has favored group organization and leadership, and in turn the leadership
has been in a position to prescribe behaviors "for the good of the
group" which nobody would engage in without
such leadership. This is reminiscent of Adam Smith's conclusion that an
invisible hand transforms actions taken by individuals who are motivated
only be desire for their o wn security and gain into forces that promote
social goods that are not intended by the individuals.
1 Darwin (1871/1981). The descent of man and selection in relation to
sex.Princeton: Princeton University Press.
2 Cronin, H. (1991).The ant and the peacock.Cambridge University Press.
3 Dawkins,R.(1089) Selfish gene,2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press
4 Wilson, D. S.(1989). Levels of selection: An alternative to individualism
in biology and the human sciences. In: E. Sober, Conceptual issues in
evolutionary biology. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT
5 Cosmides, L. (1989).The logic of social exchange.Cognition, 31, 187-276.