Evolution Shrugs Off Atlas

Larry worries that our country is being overrun by worthless altruistic looters, the likes of which inhabited Ayn Rand’s classic Atlas Shrugged, which glorifies self-interest and portrays altruism as the one of the most self-destructive ideas known to man. His mention of the novel reminded me of a recent New Scientist article, entitled Charity begins at Homo sapiens that I’ve been meaning to blog about.

The article summarizes some current research into strong reciprocity, a phenomenon where people help others to their own detriment, from an evolutionary perspective. Some of the findings may be startling to Randians:

Further support for the idea that strong reciprocity is an adaptation in its own right comes from the theoretical studies of economist Herbert Gintis of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, anthropologist Robert Boyd of the University of California at Los Angeles, and others. They set up a computer model in which groups of individuals interacted, and watched how their behaviour evolved. Individuals were set up in the model to behave initially either as cheats or as cooperators, and in personal interactions the former came off best. When groups competed with one another, however, cooperation came into its own: groups with more cooperators were likely to flourish.

But that was only the start. The individuals, whether initially cooperators or cheats, were also programmed to copy successful behaviour. In simulations with groups ranging from 4 to 256 individuals, the team found that altruism could evolve. The benefits that cooperation conferred on a group outweighed its costs to individuals – but only in groups of less than about 10. Ancestral human hunter-gatherer bands are thought to have numbered 30 or more individuals, so how could cooperative behaviour have evolved and spread in these groups?

The answer lies in the fact that strong reciprocity is not simply a matter of cooperation; it also requires punishment of those who fail to toe the line. When the team added punishment to their models, they found it made a huge difference. In a second round of simulations, they included a new kind of individual: the “punishers”. These punishers were not only willing to cooperate with others but also to punish cheats. By making cheats pay for their antisocial actions, they tipped the balance towards cooperation. This time, competition between groups led to the emergence of cooperation in groups of up to 50 individuals (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 100, p 3531).

So it would seem entirely possible that self-interest and altruism are not as incompatible as Rand made them out to be. In fact, it could be that altruism is the most selfish of all moral codes. How’s that for a paradox? Not one that many Randians would find easy to swallow. Coming to think of it, neither would many altruists.

Update: Larry thinks I’m disagreeing with him. I’m not! I find it absolutely terrifying that union bosses are directly manipulating nation budgets.

It was Larry’s reference to Rand that reminded me of the New Scientist article, which I found interesting because it cast some doubt on some of Rand’s ideas about altruism, as well as supplying some new information on which one might develop an improved philosophy of altruism and self-interest.

My apologies for not separating the two trains of thought more clearly.