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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 Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A machine learning system lets visitors at a Kandinsky exhibition hear the artwork.
Have you ever heard colors?
As part of a new exhibition, the worlds of culture and technology collide, bringing sound to the colors of abstract art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky had synesthesia, where looking at colors and shapes causes some with the condition to hear associated sounds. With the help of machine learning, virtual visitors to the Sounds Like Kandinsky exhibition, a partnership project by Centre Pompidou in Paris and Google Arts & Culture, can have an aural experience of his art.
An eye for music
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his painting. Seeing yellow summoned up trumpets, evoking emotions like cheekiness; reds produced violins portraying restlessness; while organs representing heavenliness he associated with blues, according to the exhibition notes.
Virtual visitors are invited to take part in an experiment called Play a Kandinsky, which allows them to see and hear the world through the artist's eyes.
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his 1925 painting Yellow, Red, Blue.Image: Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons
In 1925, the artist's masterpiece, "Yellow, Red, Blue", broke new ground in the world of abstract art, guiding the viewer from left to right with shifting shapes and shades. Almost a century after it was painted, Google's interactive tool lets visitors click different parts of the artwork to journey through the artist's description of the colors, associated sounds and moods that inspired the work.
But Google's new toy is not the only tool developed to enhance the artistic experience.
Artist Neil Harbisson has developed an artificial way to emulate Kandinsky by turning colors into sounds. He has a rare form of color blindness and sees the world in greyscale. But a smart antenna attached to his head translates dominant colors into musical notes, creating a real-world soundtrack of what's in front of him. The invention could open up a new world for people who are color blind.
A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.
- Private prisons in Mississippi tend to hold prisoners 90 days longer than public ones.
- The extra days eat up half of the expected cost savings of a private prison.
- The study leaves several open questions, such as what affect these extra days have on recidivism rates.
The United States of America, land of the free, is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. The cost of having so many people in the penal system adds up to $80 billion per year, more than three times the budget for NASA. This massive system exploded in size relatively recently, with the prison population increasing by six-fold in the last four decades.
Ten percent of these prisoners are kept in private prisons, which are owned and operated for the sake of profit by contractors. In theory, these operations cost less than public prisons and jails, and states can save money by contracting them to incarcerate people. They have a long history in the United States and are used in many other countries as well.
However, despite the pervasiveness of private contractors in the American prison system, there is not much research into how well they live up to their promise to provide similar services at a lower cost to the state. The little research that is available often encounters difficulties in trying to compare the costs and benefits of facilities with vastly different operations and occasionally produces results suggesting there are few benefits to privatization.
A new study by Dr. Anita Mukherjee and published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy joins the debate with a robust consideration of the costs and benefits of private prisons. Its findings suggest that some private prisons keep people incarcerated longer and save less money than advertised.
The study focuses on prisons in Mississippi. Despite its comparatively high rate of incarceration, Mississippi's prison system is very similar to that of other states that also use private prisons. Demographically, its system is representative of the rest of the U.S. prison system, and its inmates are sentenced for similar amounts of time.
The state attempts to get the most out of its privatization efforts, as a 1994 law requires all contracts for private prisons in Mississippi to provide at least a 10 percent cost savings over public prisons while providing similar services. As a result, the state seeks to maximize its savings by sending prisoners to private institutions first if space if available.
While public and private prisons in Mississippi are quite similar, there are a few differences that allow for the possibility of cost savings by private operators — not the least of which is that the guards are paid 30 percent less and have fewer benefits than their publicly employed counterparts.
The results of privatization
The graph depicts the likelihood of release for public (dotted line) vs. private (solid line) prison inmates. At every level of time served, public prisoners were more likely to be released than private prisoners.Dr. Anita Mukherjee
The study relied on administrative records of the Mississippi prison system between 1996 and 2013. The data included information on prisoner demographics, the crimes committed, sentence lengths, time served, infractions while incarcerated, and prisoner relocation while in the system, including between public and private jails. For this study, the sample examined was limited to those serving between one and six years and those who served at least a quarter of their sentence. This created a primary sample of 26,563 bookings.
Analysis revealed that prisoners in private prisons were behind bars for four to seven percent longer than those in public prisons, which translates to roughly 85 to 90 extra days per prisoner. This is, in part, because those in private prison serve a greater portion of their sentences (73 percent) than those in public institutions (70 percent).
This in turn might be due to the much higher infraction rate in private prisons compared to public ones. While only 18 percent of prisoners in a public prison commit an infraction, such as disobeying a guard or possessing contraband, the number jumps to 46 percent in a private prison. Infractions can reduce the probability of early release or cause time to be added to a sentence.
It's unclear why there are so many more infractions in private prisons. Dr. Mukherjee suggests it could be the result of "harsher prison conditions in private prisons," better monitoring techniques, incentives to report more of them to the state before contract renewals, or even a lackadaisical attitude on the part of public prison employees.
What does all this cost Mississippi?
The extra time served eats 48 percent of the cost savings of keeping prisoners in a private facility. For example, it costs about $135,000 to house a prisoner in a private prison for three years and $150,000 in the public system. But longer stays in private prisons reduce the savings from $15,000 to only $7,800.
As Dr. Mukherjee remarks, this cost is also just the finance. Some things are a little harder to measure:
"There are, of course, other costs that are difficult to quantify — e.g., the cost of injustice to society (if private prison inmates systematically serve more time), the inmate's individual value of freedom, and impacts of the additional incarceration on future employment. Abrams and Rohlfs (2011) estimates a prisoner's value of freedom for 90 days at about $1,100 using experimental variation in bail setting. Mueller-Smith (2017) estimates that 90 days of marginal incarceration costs about $15,000 in reduced wages and increased reliance on welfare. If these social costs were to exceed $7,800 in the example stated, private prisons would no longer offer a bargain in terms of welfare-adjusted cost savings."
It is possible that the extra time in jail provides benefits that counter these costs, such as a reduced recidivism rate, but this proved difficult to determine. Though it was not statistically significant, there was some evidence that the added time actually increased the rate of recidivism. If that's true, then private prisons could be counterproductive.