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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 new paper reveals that the Voyager 1 spacecraft detected a constant hum coming from outside our Solar System.
Voyager 1, humanity's most faraway spacecraft, has detected an unusual "hum" coming from outside our solar system. Fourteen billion miles away from Earth, the Voyager's instruments picked up a droning sound that may be caused by plasma (ionized gas) in the vast emptiness of interstellar space.
Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe — along with its twin Voyager 2 — has been traveling farther and farther into space for over 44 years. It has now breached the edge of our solar system, exiting the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space influenced by the sun. Now, the spacecraft is moving through the "interstellar medium," where it recorded the peculiar sound.
Stella Koch Ocker, a doctoral student in astronomy at Cornell University, discovered the sound in the data from the Voyager's Plasma Wave System (PWS), which measures electron density. Ocker called the drone coming from plasma shock waves "very faint and monotone," likely due to the narrow bandwidth of its frequency.
While they think the persistent background hum may be coming from interstellar gas, the researchers don't yet know what exactly is causing it. It might be produced by "thermally excited plasma oscillations and quasi-thermal noise."
The new paper from Ocker and her colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Iowa, published in Nature Astronomy, also proposes that this is not the last we'll hear of the strange noise. The scientists write that "the emission's persistence suggests that Voyager 1 may be able to continue tracking the interstellar plasma density in the absence of shock-generated plasma oscillation events."
Voyager Captures Sounds of Interstellar Space www.youtube.com
The researchers think the droning sound may hold clues to how interstellar space and the heliopause, which can be thought of as the solar's system border, may be affecting each other. When it first entered interstellar space, the PWS instrument reported disturbances in the gas caused by the sun. But in between such eruptions is where the researchers spotted the steady signature made by the near-vacuum.
Senior author James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell, compared the interstellar medium to "a quiet or gentle rain," adding that "in the case of a solar outburst, it's like detecting a lightning burst in a thunderstorm and then it's back to a gentle rain."
More data from Voyager over the next few years may hold crucial information to the origins of the hum. The findings are already remarkable considering the space probe is functioning on technology from the mid-1970s. The craft has about 70 kilobytes of computer memory. It also carries a Golden Record created by a committee chaired by the late Carl Sagan, who taught at Cornell University. The 12-inch gold-plated copper disk record is essentially a time capsule, meant to tell the story of Earthlings to extraterrestrials. It contains sounds and images that showcase the diversity of Earth's life and culture.
A team of scientists managed to install onto a smartphone a spectrometer that's capable of identifying specific molecules — with cheap parts you can buy online.
- Spectroscopy provides a non-invasive way to study the chemical composition of matter.
- These techniques analyze the unique ways light interacts with certain materials.
- If spectrometers become a common feature of smartphones, it could someday potentially allow anyone to identify pathogens, detect impurities in food, and verify the authenticity of valuable minerals.
The quality of smartphone cameras has increased exponentially over the past decade. Today's smartphone cameras can not only capture photos that rival those of stand-alone camera systems but also offer practical applications, like heart-rate measurement, foreign-text translation, and augmented reality.
What's the next major functionality of smartphone cameras? It could be the ability to identify chemicals, drugs, and biological molecules, according to a new study published in the Review of Scientific Instruments.
The study describes how a team of scientists at Texas A&M turned a common smartphone into a "pocket-sized" Raman and emission spectral detector by modifying it with just $50 worth of extra equipment. With the added hardware, the smartphone was able to identify chemicals in the field within minutes.
The technology could have a wide range of applications, including diagnosing certain diseases, detecting the presence of pathogens and dangerous chemicals, identifying impurities in food, and verifying the authenticity of valuable artwork and minerals.
Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy
Raman and fluorescence spectroscopies are techniques for discerning the chemical composition of materials. Both strategies exploit the fact that light interacts with certain types of matter in unique ways. But there are some differences between the two techniques.
As the name suggests, fluorescence spectroscopy measures the fluorescence — that is, the light emitted by a substance when it absorbs light or other electromagnetic radiation — of a given material. It works by shining light on a material, which excites the electrons within the molecules of the material. The electrons then emit fluorescent light toward a filter that measures fluorescence.
The particular spectra of fluorescent light that's emitted can help scientists detect small concentrations of particular types of biological molecules within a material. But some biomolecules, such as RNA and DNA, don't emit fluorescent light, or they only do so at extremely low levels. That's where Raman spectroscopy comes into play.
Raman spectroscopy involves shooting a laser at a sample and observing how the light scatters. When light hits molecules, the atoms within the molecules vibrate and photons get scattered. Most of the scattered light is of the same wavelength and color as the original light, so it provides no information. But a tiny fraction of the light gets scattered differently; that is, the wavelength and color are different. Known as Raman scattering, this is extremely useful because it provides highly precise information about the chemical composition of the molecule. In other words, all molecules have a unique Raman "fingerprint."
Creating an affordable, pocket-sized spectrometer
To build the spectrometer, the researchers connected a smartphone to a laser and a series of plastic lenses. The smartphone camera was placed facing a transmission diffraction grating, which splits incoming light into its constituent wavelengths and colors. After a laser is fired into a sample, the scattered light is diffracted through this grating, and the smartphone camera analyzes the light on the other side.
Schematic diagram of the designed system.Credit: Dhankhar et al.
To test the spectrometer, the researchers analyzed a range of sample materials, including carrots and bacteria. The laser used in the spectrometer emits a wavelength that's readily absorbed by the pigments in carrots and bacteria, which is why these materials were chosen.
The results showed that the smartphone spectrometer was able to correctly identify the materials, but it wasn't quite as effective as the best commercially available Raman spectrometers. The researchers noted that their system might be improved by using specific High Dynamic Range (HDR) smartphone camera applications.
Ultimately, the study highlights how improving the fundamentals of a technology, like smartphone cameras, can lead to a surprisingly wide range of useful applications.
"This inexpensive yet accurate recording pocket Raman system has the potential of being an integral part of ubiquitous cell phones that will make it possible to identify chemical impurities and pathogens, in situ within minutes," the researchers concluded.