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How humans ended up the most altruistic of animals
Humans help each other in ways animals don't dream of, but why?
- Humans are more altruistic than any other animal, but why is that?
- One theory suggests culture and genetics combined to provide groups that worked well together an edge in competition.
- Others suggest that groups could be subject to evolutionary pressures.
Humans are different from other animals in a lot of ways. While some of these differences are obvious to any observer, others are more subtle. Among the latter is our unique approach to altruism. While many animals demonstrate some kind of altruistic tendency, humans take it further and apply it to more situations than any other creature. The question of why we do that is a big one. Several well-argued and supported theories offer explanations for it.
A recent essay published in the philosophy journal Synthese clarifies one of the more intriguing of these explanations.
Apparently, what separates man from beast is kindness.
There are different kinds of altruism, and examples of them can be seen in both human and animal behavior all the time. "Kin altruism" is when you take actions that cost or harm you but benefit another person that you're related to. A second type, "reciprocal altruism," can occur with people you're not related to, but who you can reasonably expect will be able to return the favor someday.
From the standpoint of genetic selfishness, both of these forms of altruism make sense. Helping out your kin, with whom you share DNA, promotes the evolutionary success of your genes, even if that success doesn't belong to you specifically. Helping somebody likely to help you later is a kind of "enlightened self-interest" that assures aid to you when you need it.
However, humans sometimes behave in ways that cannot be easily placed in either of those categories. People often help perfect strangers who will be unlikely to return the favor in the future. Think of the last time you gave a homeless person some change or donated blood. The person you helped probably wasn't related to you, and the likelihood of that person paying you back is relatively low.
Animals don't act this way; their behavior fits nicely into the above two categories, so how did we come to have such a tendency to act this way?
Naturally, there is more than one kind of selection.
In his essay "Explaining human altruism," Dr. Michael Vlerick of Tilburg University offers a conceptual clarification of what some researchers have called "cultural group selection."
When people think of evolution, they often think of the mechanism of natural selection. This is nature acting on the individual, with individuals who have traits that promote survival being "selected" to continue living and to spread their traits. However, other things can cause evolutionary pressure.
Dr. Vlerick, in previous publications, has argued that, within groups, cultural forces act to select for certain traits. Individuals who demonstrate consistent anti-social behavior are selected against over the long run. Eventually, you're left with a group of individuals who are more pro-social than not.
In a sense, humanity created social environments that naturally selected for people who weren't total sociopaths.
The hypothesis then suggests that this in-group selection dovetails with competition between groups. When a group of individuals that tend to work well together goes head-to-head against one that doesn't, the former is likely to come out on top. In the long run, this leads to more, larger groups of pro-social individuals. If you repeat this endless times throughout human evolution, you end up with an animal capable of helping other members of its species in ways that other animals can't.
There are alternatives to this idea. One of them argues that groups, in addition to individuals, can be subject to the pressures of natural selection and that group genetic selection is behind the behavior we observe. Groups of genetically homogeneous individuals compete with each other for resources. Groups that work well together, which are genetically predisposed for altruism and pro-social behavior, tend to out-compete others.
While this hypothesis could explain what we see, it relies on a few controversial assumptions. Among them, the idea that migrations between groups was extremely limited, and that the genetic differences between these groups were quite substantial. Neither of these points are supported by evidence, and many scientists reject this theory of "genetic group selection."
The cultural group selection stance does not suffer from these problems as it doesn't depend on either of these assumptions. It allows for migration between groups and requires only that people can choose to be altruistic and pro-social in ways that others cannot, not that they are genetically hardwired to act that way all the time. Groups that decide to emulate successful, pro-social groups can also recreate an environment that selects for people who are willing to help strangers.
Alright, so we evolved for in-group cooperation. What does that mean for us?
Dr. Vlerick points out that he isn't suggesting that humans are hardwired to be altruistic to everybody all the time. We are not slaves to our genetic tendencies; but we are, in Dr. Vlerick's words, "a particularly cooperative species with an evolved disposition for in-group altruism."
These dispositions are subject to circumstance and the use of reason. He notes that most people, and even young children, can judge who is behaving fairly or not and, consequently, worthy of being treated justly.
We often find ourselves able to work with groups other than our own in achieving common goals, despite these cooperative and empathetic tendencies having evolved for in-group use. Most people would argue that their ethical systems apply to out-groups as well as whatever groups they place themselves in. This is the result not of evolution, but of the use of reason.
We spoke with Dr. Vlerick by email and he explained that this capacity to move beyond the limited cooperation we evolved for will have to be utilized to solve current global issues:
"Today we're faced with global problems requiring us to cooperate globally (climate change, mass migration, poverty, COVID-19 pandemic). Our evolved nature does not equip us well to do so; we're wired for in-group cooperation, not global cooperation. But we aren't slaves to our nature, we can overcome our innate tribalism through reasoning, and we have already made massive strides in this respect. It's our moral responsibility to 'become better than our nature'."
Humans have an innate capacity for altruism that other animals lack. When combined with our tendency to live in large groups with people we aren't related to and our ability to reason, many people find themselves helping perfect strangers reasonably often.
Is it all because we built a world where working together is frequently rewarded, and harming others is often punished? Perhaps, but while the exact cause of this disposition to helping others remains unknown, theories on why we are the way we are continue to crop up and provide us new ways of understanding ourselves.
- Every Selfish Gene Must Also Cooperate - Big Think ›
- Does altruism exist? Science and philosophy weigh in - Big Think ›
- Is Human Nature Selfless? - Big Think ›
- It's human nature to be kind to others - Big Think ›
A cave in France contains man’s earliest-known structures that had to be built by Neanderthals who were believed to be incapable of such things.
In a French cave deep underground, scientists have discovered what appear to be 176,000-year-old man-made structures. That's 150,000 years earlier than any that have been discovered anywhere before. And they could only have been built by Neanderthals, people who were never before considered capable of such a thing.
This is going to force a major shift in the way we see these early hominids. Researchers had thought that Neanderthals were profoundly primitive, and just barely human. This cave in France's Aveyron Valley changes all that: It's suddenly obvious that Neanderthals were not quite so unlike us.
According to The Atlantic, Bruniquel Cave was first explored in 1990 by Bruno Kowalsczewski, who was 15 at the time. He'd spent three years digging away at rubble covering a space through which his father felt air moving.
Some members of a local caving club managed to squeeze through the narrow, 30-meter long tunnel Kowalsczewski had dug to arrive in a passageway. They followed it past pools of water and old animal bones for over 330 meters before coming into a large chamber and a scene they had no reason to expect: Stalagmites that someone had broken into hundreds of small pieces, most of which were arranged into two rings—one roughly 6 meters across, and one 2 meters wide—with the remaining pieces stacked into one of four piles or leaning against the rings. There were also indications of fires and burnt bones.
Image source: Etienne FABRE - SSAC
A professional archeologist, Francois Rouzaud, determined with carbon dating that a burnt bear bone found in the chamber was 47,600 years old, which made the stalagmite structures older than any known cave painting. It also put the cave squarely within the age of the Neanderthals since they were the only humans in France that early. No one had suspected them of being capable of constructing complex forms or doing anything that far underground.
After Rouzard suddenly died in 1999, exploration at the cave stopped until life-long caver Sophie Verheyden, vacationing in the area, heard about it and decided to try and uranium-date the stalagmites inside.
The team she assembled eventually determined that the stalagmites had been broken up by people 176,000 years ago, way farther back even than Rouzard had supposed.
There weren't any signs that Neanderthals lived in the cave, so it's a mystery what they were up to down there. Verheyden thinks it's unlikely that a solitary artist created the tableaux, and so an organized group of skilled workers must've been involved. And “When you see such a structure so far into the cave, you think of something cultural or religious, but that's not proven," Verheyden told The Atlantic.
Whatever they built, the Bruniquel Cave reveals some big surprises about Neanderthals: They had fire, they built things, and likely used tools. Add this to recent discoveries that suggest they buried their dead, made art, and maybe even had language, and these mysterious proto-humans start looking a lot more familiar. A lot more like homo sapiens, and a lot more like distant cousins lost to history.
A recent study used fMRI to compare the brains of psychopathic criminals with a group of 100 well-functioning individuals, finding striking similarities.
- The study used psychological inventories to assess a group of violent criminals and healthy volunteers for psychopathy, and then examined how their brains responded to watching violent movie scenes.
- The fMRI results showed that the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits reacted similarly as the psychopathic criminal group. Both of these groups also showed atrophy in brain regions involved in regulating emotion.
- The study adds complexity to common conceptions of what differentiates a psychopath from a "healthy" individual.
When considering what precisely makes someone a psychopath, the lines can be blurry.
Psychological research has shown that many people in society have some degree of malevolent personality traits, such as those described by the "dark triad": narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and deceit), and psychopathy (callousness and cynicism). But while people who score high in these traits are more likely to end up in prison, most of them are well functioning and don't engage in extreme antisocial behaviors.
Now, a new study published in Cerebral Cortex found that the brains of psychopathic criminals are structurally and functionally similar to many well-functioning, non-criminal individuals with psychopathic traits. The results suggest that psychopathy isn't a binary classification, but rather a "constellation" of personality traits that "vary in the non-incarcerated population with normal range of social functioning."
Assessing your inner psychopath
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brains of violent psychopathic criminals to those of healthy volunteers. All participants were assessed for psychopathy through commonly used inventories: the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised and the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale.
Experimental design and sample stimuli. The subjects viewed a compilation of 137 movie clips with variable violent and nonviolent content.Nummenmaa et al.
Both groups watched a 26-minute-long medley of movie scenes that were selected to portray a "large variability of social and emotional content." Some scenes depicted intense violence. As participants watched the medley, fMRI recorded how various regions of their brains responded to the content.
The goal was to see whether the brains of psychopathic criminals looked and reacted similarly to the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits. The results showed similar reactions: When both groups viewed violent scenes, the fMRI revealed strong reactions in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula, brain regions associated with regulating emotion.
These similarities manifested as a positive association: The more psychopathic traits a healthy subject displayed, the more their brains responded like the criminal group. What's more, the fMRI revealed a similar association between psychopathic traits and brain structure, with those scoring high in psychopathy showing lower gray matter density in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula.
There were some key differences between the groups, however. The researchers noted that the structural abnormalities in the healthy sample were mainly associated with primary psychopathic traits, which are: inclination to lie, lack of remorse, and callousness. Meanwhile, the functional responses of the healthy subjects were associated with secondary psychopathic traits: impulsivity, short temper, and low tolerance for frustration.
Overall, the study further illuminates some of the biological drivers of psychopathy, and it adds nuance to common conceptions of the differences between psychopathy and being "healthy."
Why do some psychopaths become criminals?
The million-dollar question remains unanswered: Why do some psychopaths end up in prison, while others (or, people who score high in psychopathic traits) lead well-functioning lives? The researchers couldn't give a definitive answer, but they did note that psychopathic criminals had lower connectivity within "key nodes of the social and emotional brain networks, including amygdala, insula, thalamus, and frontal pole."
"Thus, even though there are parallels in the regional responsiveness of the brain's affective circuit in the convicted psychopaths and well-functioning subjects with psychopathic traits, it is likely that the disrupted functional connectivity of this network is specific to criminal psychopathy."
Counterintuitively, directly combating misinformation online can spread it further. A different approach is needed.
- Like the coronavirus, engaging with misinformation can inadvertently cause it to spread.
- Social media has a business model based on getting users to spend increasing amounts of time on their platforms, which is why they are hesitant to remove engaging content.
- The best way to fight online misinformation is to drown it out with the truth.
A year ago, the Center for Countering Digital Hate warned of the parallel pandemics — the biological contagion of COVID-19 and the social contagion of misinformation, aiding the spread of the disease. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, anti-vaccine accounts have gained 10 million new social media followers, while we have witnessed arson attacks against 5G masts, hospital staff abused for treating COVID patients, and conspiracists addressing crowds of thousands.
Many have refused to follow guidance issued to control the spread of the virus, motivated by beliefs in falsehoods about its origins and effects. The reluctance we see in some to get the COVID vaccine is greater amongst those who rely on social media rather than traditional media for their information. In a pandemic, lies cost lives, and it has felt like a new conspiracy theory has sprung up online every day.
How we, as social media users, behave in response to misinformation can either enable or prevent it from being seen and believed by more people.
The rules are different online
Credit: Pool via Getty Images
If a colleague mentions in the office that Bill Gates planned the pandemic, or a friend at dinner tells the table that the COVID vaccine could make them infertile, the right thing to do is often to challenge their claims. We don't want anyone to be left believing these falsehoods.
But digital is different. The rules of physics online are not the same as they are in the offline world. We need new solutions for the problems we face online.
Now, imagine that in order to reply to your friend, you must first hand him a megaphone so that everyone within a five-block radius can hear what he has to say. It would do more damage than good, but this is essentially what we do when we engage with misinformation online.
Think about misinformation as being like the coronavirus — when we engage with it, we help to spread it to everyone else with whom we come into contact. If a public figure with a large following responds to a post containing misinformation, they ensure the post is seen by hundreds of thousands or even millions of people with one click. Social media algorithms also push content into more users' newsfeeds if it appears to be engaging, so lots of interactions from users with relatively small followings can still have unintended negative consequences.
The trend of people celebrating and posting photos of themselves or loved ones receiving the vaccine has been far more effective than any attempt to disprove a baseless claim about Bill Gates or 5G mobile technology.
Additionally, whereas we know our friend from the office or dinner, most of the misinformation we see online will come from strangers. They often will be from one of two groups — true believers, whose minds are made up, and professional propagandists, who profit from building large audiences online and selling them products (including false cures). Both of these groups use trolling tactics, that is, seeking to trigger people to respond in anger, thus helping them reach new audiences and thereby gaming the algorithm.
On the day the COVID vaccine was approved in the UK, anti-vaccine activists were able to provoke pro-vaccine voices into posting about thalidomide, exposing new audiences to a reason to distrust the medical establishment. Those who spread misinformation understand the rules of the game online; it's time those of us on the side of enlightenment values of truth and science did too.
How to fight online misinformation
Of course, it is much easier for social media companies to take on this issue than for us citizens. Research from the Center for Countering Digital Hate and Anti-Vax Watch last month found that 65% of anti-vaccine content on social media is linked to just twelve individuals and their organizations. Were the platforms to simply remove the accounts of these superspreaders, it would do a huge amount to reduce harmful misinformation.
The problem is that social media platforms are resistant to do so. These businesses have been built by constantly increasing the amount of time users spend on their platforms. Getting rid of the creators of engaging content that has millions of people hooked is antithetical to the business model. It will require intervention from governments to force tech companies to finally protect their users and society as a whole.
So, what can the rest of us do, while we await state regulation?
Instead of engaging, we should be outweighing the bad with the good. Every time you see a piece of harmful misinformation, share advice or information from a trusted source, like the WHO or BBC, on the same subject. The trend of people celebrating and posting photos of themselves or loved ones receiving the vaccine has been far more effective than any attempt to disprove a baseless claim about Bill Gates or 5G mobile technology. In the attention economy that governs tech platforms, drowning out is a better strategy than rebuttal.
Imran Ahmed is CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.