Ethics and Biology: Biological Altruism

23 Apr

Evolutionary ethics is an attempt to ground morality in terms of biology, thereby eliminating the notion that the ideas of good and evil were handed down and dictated to humans by some God or other supreme being. Oddly enough, anyone who has read my views on God should realize that such an attempt, to ground morality in biology, is actually how my “God” would do just that: evolutionary ethics is an attempt to show that the universe and the natural flow of cause and effect within the universe, or what we call science, gives birth naturally to the notions of good and evil. This task is certainly no easy feat, and to date no one has come up with a good way to reconcile what philosophers call the “is-ought” problem: how do we ground the “ought,” the subjective notion that we “should” follow moral rules rather than that we “must” follow them, in terms of the “is,” the objectivity of hard scientific fact? I have a few ideas that I want to explore as to how we might be able to accomplish this, and my methods primarily revolve around redefining the traditional notions of morality, good, and evil.


Biological Altruism

Altruism in the biological world is defined as any behavior that benefits other organisms at a cost to the altruistic organism. At the price of the organism’s own fitness, the altruistic organism works to increase the fitness of other organisms; either by putting one’s own life at risk, expending energy, or sharing one’s own resources, an altruistic organism puts forth some effort that decreases its own chances to survive and prosper while simultaneously doing the opposite for another. It is a phenomenon that is seen throughout the animal kingdom, particularly among social animals (e.g. ants, monkeys, birds), yet it is, at first sight, in contradiction to the very notion of natural selection. The main principle of natural selection is that the strongest, most fit organisms survive and prosper over weaker, less fit organisms. In this sense altruism is detrimental to an individual organism as it decreases its fitness; if the general principle of natural selection is applied, altruistic behavior has a tendency to be selected against. In contrast, a selfish organism, one that benefits from the efforts of the altruistic organism yet itself accrues no costs, has a much higher fitness than the altruistic organism, and therefore would be selected for.

The proposed answer to this conundrum, that altruism isn’t likely to have evolved due to the fact that altruism is selected against while selfishness is select for, is to view natural selection as operating on groups rather than individuals. A group of organisms as a whole benefits from the altruism of individuals and therefore enjoys an increased fitness. Natural selection then works to select for groups of organisms rather than individual ones: groups with more altruistic individuals are selected over groups which are less altruistic. This theory, that altruism evolved due to the selection of groups rather than individuals, is called group selection.

The main stumbling block of group selection is what is called “subversion from within,” the notion that even a single selfish organism will upset the balance of an altruistic population. By profiting from the work of other members of the population, the selfish organism has a higher chance to survive and pass on both its own genes and its selfish tendencies to future generations. The eventual and natural result after many generations of increased fitness for selfish individuals is that altruism is selected against and eliminated within a population. Thus it seems that altruism is unlikely to survive within a society, or at least that the eventual result will be a large population of selfish individuals profiting from the altruism of just a few members.


Striking a Balance

I don’t necessarily agree with the notion that altruism isn’t likely to have evolved due to the principle of “subversion from within”: while the principle certainly makes sense, I don’t think that it indicates that altruism is not likely to evolve in a population, rather I believe that the principle merely indicates that the number of altruistic individuals within a group of social organisms tends to a minimum.  Group selection and individual selection are both at work within societies of organisms, but they have competing effects. Group selection selects for groups with higher levels of altruism (because a more altruistic group has an overall higher fitness) while individual selection selects for populations with higher levels of selfishness.

Societies of autonomous animals (as opposed to hive minded animals like ants or bees) will always have at least a few selfish individuals. Selfishness within a society has a tendency to grow by the “subversion from within” principle, causing a decrease in altruistic benefits and therefore in the fitness of the group. Yet the force of group selection limits the amount that selfishness can spread throughout a single group; the decrease in altruism comes with an equal decrease in the group’s overall fitness because the work of the altruistic members is less and less effective and cannot support the habits of the selfish members. An equilibrium is eventually established in which the altruistic benefits are just enough to support a certain number of selfish individuals: any less and group selection will begin to select for the group by choosing altruist members over selfish members.

An altruistic group of organisms will always succeed over a group that is less altruistic, provided that the conditions of the environment are not so extreme that individuals are always selected for over groups (as is the case when resources are extremely limited). If the environment is at least stable enough to support the equilibrium between altruism and selfishness, that is, that the environment doesn’t cause members of the society to enter into immediate life-or-death competitions with one another over food (think of two mice fighting over the only piece of cheese for miles), more altruistic groups will always be selected for simply because they have a higher probability to succeed over less altruistic groups. So, provided that the environment has enough resources to provide for all groups equally, how can one group succeed over another? If we say that a group is more likely to succeed if it has higher levels of altruism than the others, then group selection will choose whichever group has a higher ratio of altruistic members to selfish members.


Ethics: An Evolutionary Milestone

Among competing groups of the same altruistic species, how does one group succeed over another? In other words, what makes one more likely to survive and prosper when compared to the other? My above argumentation seems to point to the notion that whatever group maintains a higher ratio of altruistic members to selfish members will have higher fitness. But how does one society, subject to the same environmental challenges and therefore to a similar equilibrium of altruism and selfishness as the other, maintain higher levels of altruism? Presumably the thing that makes the difference, when external conditions are the same, is located internally, within the society itself. There must be a mechanism by which one society actively reduces or controls the amount of selfishness within the population. If other societies have a tendency to slowly decline into selfishness over generations by the “subversion from within” principle, then the society that will eventually win out is the one which finds a way to regulate the spread of selfishness. More broadly, the society that has the best, most effective way of regulating selfishness has an higher overall fitness and therefore a higher chance to succeed.

The idea that I want to espouse is that in humans, ethics is the general term for behaviors adapted for this very purpose: to root out selfishness and promote altruism. If we recast the the ethical notions of good and evil in biological terms, we can designate “good” as any action that is altruistic or promotes altruism, and “bad” as any action that is selfish or promotes selfishness. One can see a direct analogy to utilitarianism as defined by John Stuart Mill; rather than the morality of an one’s actions being judged upon the total amount of pleasure created minus the total amount of pain created, we can judge morality based upon the total amount of altruism minus the total amount of selfishness that one’s actions generate in both oneself and in others.

For now, though, I will leave a more extensive discussion of how good and evil can be defined in this way for another post.


Online References:

S.E. Bromberg: The Evolution of Ethics

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Biological Altruism

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Evolutionary Ethics

1 Comment

Posted by on April 23, 2012 in Ethics and Biology, Philosophy, Writing


One response to “Ethics and Biology: Biological Altruism

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