Thursday, November 09, 2006

Potlatch of death

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Biologists have always separated spite and altruism as two different traits – either you are nasty to non-relatives or nice to your relatives – but they are actually the same. If you take a sample of adults and one family does well, somebody else has to do badly. If you help your relatives eat more quickly, it leaves less food for the competition. For example, bacteria on a piece of food have a limited food supply, so they produce toxins that are poisonous to other bacterial strains. Although this strategy is costly in terms of the energy expenditure required, it will be favoured because it increases the relative abundance of the poisonous strain by eliminating competing bacteria.

A gene that causes an individual to spend their time being nasty to others means less time reproducing – so it doesn’t make sense that a spiteful gene should spread.
The scientist sayeth.

So maybe an account of the potlatch competetive altruism. Being highly altruistic is in fact an acquired and useful evolutionary trait - kindness kills, etc. Mayhap we could look at how co-operative productive altruistic behaviour could drive out agressive military social strategies, or maybe I'm just over-egging the agalmic pudding again.


Blogger DespairToWhere said...

I don't know, possibly. I certainly agree that drawing political lessons from evolutionary science shouldn't be left to the right. Some strands of feminism, for example, drew very useful and powerful lessons from primatology and sociobiology, and quite right too.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

One of my concerns is that the argument against group selection - that unchecked defectors would prosper - would apply to human societies: in which case completely co-operative behaviour would be seen to be impossible, or at least inherently riddled with free riding and attempts to restore inequality. That brings up the possibility that the authoritarian left are right. Would socialism be destroyed by spam?

8:23 AM  
Blogger DespairToWhere said...

Spam as in the vile tinned meat? How so?!
I'm sure you're right that free-riding will be a problem in socialism -- or indeed in any society. But I'm not worried that this means we must turn to authoritarianism. Egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, for example, deal with the problem in various ways: costly and emotionally involving rituals, strong anti-authoritarian spirit among individuals, enforced rules about who's entitled to what, and so on. Even in our own society there is strong moral disapproval of free-riding (among the proletariat, although capitalist free-riders are of course OK).

11:02 AM  

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