Re: Trivers' Reciprocal Altruism

From: S.Harnad (
Date: Thu Nov 06 1997 - 21:17:31 GMT

> From: "Jon Wright" <>
> I think that in a moment of crisis, the way people behave is
> more likely to be dependent on their general attitude toward others and
> their past experiences and influences (like Superman, perhaps). Some
> people are more likely to be leaders than others and those will be more
> likely to place themselves at greater risk. In the PiperA disaster, the
> two workers who tried to get back to the control room from the
> accommodation quarters would most likely have been more predisposed to
> such actions and taking charge than others.

You may be right about heroism: It may be partly based on experience
and culture, partly on genetic diversity (individual variation in
inclination toward heroism); but Trivers's model is meant to explain
such phenomena at the level of a species: We vary in the size and
distance between our eyes, but we all have a pair of eyes. We may vary
as individuals and on the basis of our diverse experiences in how
likely we are to be heroic, but our species does seem to be disposed to
do a lot for its conspecifics (others of the same species), even when
they are not close relatives. That's what the Trivers model of
reciprocal altruism is an attempt to explain.

> Human altruism is very complicated and indeed the whole argument
> could be reduced to the point where one only does things because one
> wants to and so that in itself is a satisfying experience. It makes it
> impossible to be disinterested in the outcome of any act.

But that's not at issue: There is surely a (proximal)"feel-good" factor
in our heroic acts, but if we had not been designed to feel good about
THAT SORT OF THING (as the EEA child was designed to feel good about
sugar) we wouldn't do it.

Evolutionary explanations of altruism are, to put it simply,
explanations of WHY it feels good to do something for others now and
again, for there are plenty of nonsocial species that would never do
anything for a nonrelative. It is an explanation in terms of the
distal advantages that such tendencies conferred on our ancestors.

> The notion that subjective feelings of guilt, gratitude,
> friendship, sympathy and so on are the result of evolution is not
> unconvincing (to me), as seemed to be the general opinion in the
> seminar. It is useful to be able to explain these feelings in terms of
> the regulation of altruistic situations and exchanges. Gratitude is felt
> towards someone who does you a favour and as such the favour is repaid
> (assuming no cheats). The repayment of the favour causes a positive
> feeling between those people (trustworthiness) and future cooperation is
> more likely, ensuring survival and the passing on of genes. A gene
> favouring 'gratitude' will survive.

Yes, but let's not get too credulous either: There's often a big gap
between the distal causes in the EEA and our proximal feelings and
doings. What this seminar is meant to make you think about is:
Where/when does the evolutionary explanation work, and where does it
make more sense to explain why we do things in terms of culture,
consciousness, and reasoning?

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Tue Feb 13 2001 - 16:23:08 GMT