Egoism, Altruism, and Inclusive fitness

A popular belief seems to be that (to borrow Volchok’s words from another thread) ‘altruism is an illusion’.[*] It seems common to hold that egoism is the ‘real deal’ and altruism is merely a consequence of egoism. Commonly, this is supported with a biological standpoint on evolution.

Here I would like to point out that this is not the case. The fact is, egoism and altruism are equals. They are both tools for survival, and both are merely consequences of the same biological processes. There is no reason to suppose that one is central to the other.

Here’s a good example of altruism in nature: Honey Bees. Female worker bees do not reproduce. They selflessly work for the hive and will readily kill themselves to defend the hive. As individuals, they exemplify the perfect form of altruism. Why? Simply because mathematically speaking, they share more genetic code with their sisters than they would with their daughters, if they had some. Because of the unique way bees’ DNA works, genetic code which tells female bees programmed to reproduce with each other is actually less likely to be replicated. This is the (well proven) theory of inclusive fitness.

Well, that’s all well-known science. But what can we learn from it as philosophers?

Well, we know that evolution can cause beings to be egoistic or altruistic. Egoism - as in will for the preservation of the individual being - is not a center on which altruism necessarily relies, as has been a common perception. Self preservation is just another offshoot of evolution. As shown by the example of female worker bees, it is not a necessary consequence of evolution, but a non-necessary one. A useful tool in that sometimes increases the fitness of genetic code. Altruism can be that too. If ‘altruism’ is an illusion, then ‘egoism’ must be an illusion too.

Conclusion: at least from a biological standpoint, there is no support for a blanket presumption that egoism is central and altruism is a consequence of egoism.

[*]I’m borrowing Volchok’s words but not necessarily talking about his beliefs directly, as I took the words out of context to represent a view that I see as common, regardless of whether its actually a view that Volchok himself holds.

Honey bees aren’t really altruistic (or as altruistic as you think they are), they’re all sisters, birthed from the same mother (the queen bee), to protect your sister is to protect yourself (in a sense), as you have the exactly the same genes. Observe how honey bees from hive x ruthlessly compete with honey bees from hives y and z. The same is true of all ‘social’ insects, ants and termites are no exception. Humans are actually the most altruistic animals on the planet, and even we leave much to be desired. Only a fool believes humans are purely egotistic or altruistic, look how some of us care for dogs and cats. That being said, relatively speaking, we are far, far more egotistic than altruistic.

This is a point that needs reiteration. Claiming all altruism is egoistic (or vice versa) is playing with language, not finding any deeper truths about the world.

But it sounds kinda cool and edgy, like a motorbike jacket or torn jeans. It makes regular guest appearances here. And it’s fairly harmless, out of the hands of objectivists.

There’s an evolutionary reason why egoism is infinitely more fundamental and more prevalent than altruism. That reason is - if I develop genes that make me care for all life indiscriminately, it’s (emphasis) highly unlikely that care will be reciprocated, as the odds of all or even some other life forms developing those selfless genes at the same time as me are extremely low, and thus, my selfless genes will die with me, my love, time, energy and resources wasted on ingreats, If, however, I develop self loving genes, these genes will sustain themselves, they’re self supportive.

Plus, you can’t help others without first and foremost helping yourself, as you can’t help others if your dead, but you can help yourself if some others are dead, plus, animals are more able to help themselves than others, as others are often outside of our reach and understanding. All this serves to make selfish love the rule and selfless love the exception.

If you have many siblings (of whatever form), the benefits of (genetic) altruistic behaviour soon outweigh the drawbacks.

What is the difference between the person that helps another in need and the person who ignores another in need? The former chooses to help, the latter chooses not to help. Who makes the choice? The person, and the person alone. They can be influenced to make a certain decision, but all choices are based on influence. We’re bias.

The very act of choice condemns the act to be a product of self-interest. It is in an organism’s self-interest to act in accordance with it’s desires. If there is no choice, then there is no concern being demonstrated, it’s just something on autopilot.

“Altruism is a concern for the welfare of others.”

This is a false dichotomy on a variety of levels and makes me feel like I could write a book on the confusion involved.

First, the word “ego” is the wrong word. An ego is a necessarily false personal image that a complex mind attempts to maintain. It has very little to do with evolution. The image is necessarily false simply because the mind cannot fruitfully conceive of the truth of what the person actually is, but rather maintains a “self-image” which is a possible close approximation. But evolution is not about protecting someone’s false image of themselves. Evolution is about actions that yield survival regardless of their nature. The effort to maintain an ego happens to be a strategy that assists in social structures and competition, but can also lend in the opposite direction, It is a complex issue.

But in addition, “altruist” is also the wrong word to be using. An “altruist” is someone who speaks the truth (“all-true-ist”) even if it isn’t to his own benefit. In a sense, an altruist is the perfect witness because he refuses to bend his testimony merely to defend his own position. Although he might decide to take the fifth amendment if he sees the speculation of the evidence will point toward himself. The altruist is attempting to be honest with his evaluations and judgments especially when they affect other people. Everyone should want the judge in a court to be an altruist, an unbiased assessor of the events and arbitrator (that is everyone except the guilty Nietzschian).

I think that Volchok is intending to refer to the distinction between the “selfish” and the “selfless” wherein the selfish focuses entirely upon his own interests above anyone else’s and the selfless totally disregards his own personal interest and lives for sake of the group.

The evolutionary concerns are those of group survival versus individual survival. Science has already proven that “survival of the fittest” is NOT the backbone of evolution nor survival itself. The real truth on the matter is that it is “survival of the fitted” and thus those who least challenge the survival of those surrounding them (inclusively fitted) end up out living those not so wise and got caught being too self-interested - “selfish”.

Without even looking, I really don’t care what any etymologist states about what a word means. They have a variety of issues that leads them to make all kinds of nonsense assertions. Philosophers are a far better reference than any etymologist could ever be. Etymology is about what culture used a word and the etymologist’s guess (often bias and always brainless) as to what that culture might have meant by it or from what other word they might have gotten it.

Of course. Your reasoning is far clearer than looking at the referenced history of word uses. :stuck_out_tongue:

Thinking people are far better references than history writers, yes.

Think of it this way;

You have 3 categories of concern;

  1. the person who prejudices what he does toward himself (selfish - “Nietzschian”)
  2. the person who does NOT prejudice what he does toward himself (honest - “altruist”)
  3. the person who mindlessly does not regard himself at all in his doings. (mindless servant - “robot”)

But you might want to note the robots are very seriously gaining in population partly because they are also altruistic.

I don’t want to argue with you, James. So I wont. :slight_smile:

Sometimes wisdom is found in the oddest places. :sunglasses:

No, if you are a honey bee, protecting your sister will often lead to your death. They are not protecting themselves in any way whatsoever.

They are, of course, exhibiting the behavior that is mathematically most likely to cause a certain series of genetic code to be replicated.

But the whole point of what I was saying was: the behavior that this entails is entirely selfless (beyond the needs individual organism involved) and is therefore altruistic. And that was the point: egoism is not a necessary consequence of evolution, just like altruism isn’t.

This is one of many reasons why egoism is more prevalent. But it is not a reason why it is more fundamental. Neither is fundamental. They both just exist as useful tools.

There’s no biological reason why a being can’t have both altruistic and egoistic tendencies. There is also no biological reason why, in a being with both tendencies, egoism must be the ‘core’ and altruism must be a consequence of the egoist drive. This is the fallacy I was pointing out.

Yes, most beings are probably primarily egoistic. But many species also exhibit altruistic behaviors too.

This sounds interesting. Could you explain it a bit more? Maybe some examples?

Yes and no.

Not just any series of genetic code, their series of genetic code, their sisters are carrying virtually identical series of genetic code.


Instead of entirely selfish/otherless or entirely selfless/otherish, perhaps we should be discussing degrees of otherlessness and otherishness. Your conception of self and other are rigid. In a way, my brothers and sisters are me, or more me than your brothers and sisters are me.

I would say the most selfless act I would be for me to sacrifice myself for a single worm, something nothing like me, and something I and my siblings can gain nothing from. Of course, I would never consciously do such a thing, so I’m not capable of acting in an entirely selfless manner.

Then there’s the whole - I am helping you because it gives me pleasure argument, which I’m sure you’re all too familiar with. There’s probably always a pleasure incentive in whatever do, but some actions are probably more pleasure oriented than others, some are probably done for their own sake, and even if I am helping you purely for the sake of my own pleasure, I’m still helping you as opposed to myself, which makes the behavior more selfless than if I were to help myself for pleasure.

Humean… thanks 4 responding to me. :smiley: :smiley: :smiley: :astonished: