The Evolution of Altruism

From ScienceDaily:

Defined as the ability to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others, altruism has been a bit of a genetic mystery. Understanding why altruism evolves is one of the fundamental challenges in evolutionary theory.

However, a paper published online in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society by researchers affiliated with MSU’s BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action has shed new light on the subject. This study marked the first time that scientists have been able to test such generalizations of kin selection theory.

“The ability to conduct research in digital systems enabled us to learn nuances of kin selection theory that may have been difficult to discover via evolutionary experiments in natural systems,” said team member Charles Ofria.

Using digital evolution technology, the team learned how altruism evolves by setting up different experimental situations. Through this, the researchers found that genes were more likely to help others that were physically similar to them, as opposed to strictly helping those that are related to them.

“Sometimes, by chance, relatives do not share genes, while complete strangers do,” said Jeff Clune, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University who recently earned his doctorate from MSU. “A potentially better strategy, then, is to help individuals who are very physically similar to you, which may be a proxy for genetic similarity.”

Read more here.

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  • Liam_McGonagle

    I don’t know if I can wrap my head around the reductivist idea that there is a literal switch in my body that flips on and tells me when to behave decently.

    But I like the general idea that altruistic behaviour has a role in genetic selection. That was my favourite bit from that Michael Shermer book, “The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share and Follow the Golden Rule”.

    Puts me in mind of another book a friend described a while ago. Damned if I can remember the author or the title. But the thesis is that humanity is actually a collective organism in the same way that sponges are–a single cohesive entity comprised of an aggregation of numerous individuals capable of detaching and recombining into other, new entities.

    Sounds like a Disinfo-y type of thing to me. Surely someone out there knows what I’m talking about.

    • Hadrian999

      you aren’t referring to the Lucifer effect are you?

      • Liam_McGonagle

        Maybe I am. Don’t know for sure, though. Spent some time looking for a copy, since you mentioned it, but came up with nothing. Saw the book’s site on the web. And it does seem to deal with moral philosophy. But no mention of the ‘sponge’ idea. Maybe that was one of the more peripheral ideas in the book?

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know if I can wrap my head around the reductivist idea that there is a literal switch in my body that flips on and tells me when to behave decently.

    But I like the general idea that altruistic behaviour has a role in genetic selection. That was my favourite bit from that Michael Shermer book, “The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share and Follow the Golden Rule”.

    Puts me in mind of another book a friend described a while ago. Damned if I can remember the author or the title. But the thesis is that humanity is actually a collective organism in the same way that sponges are–a single cohesive entity comprised of an aggregation of numerous individuals capable of detaching and recombining into other, new entities.

    Sounds like a Disinfo-y type of thing to me. Surely someone out there knows what I’m talking about.

  • Hadrian999

    you aren’t referring to the Lucifer effect are you?

  • Anonymous

    Maybe I am. Don’t know for sure, though. Spent some time looking for a copy, since you mentioned it, but came up with nothing. Saw the book’s site on the web. And it does seem to deal with moral philosophy. But no mention of the ‘sponge’ idea. Maybe that was one of the more peripheral ideas in the book?

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