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To read some of the research, you'd think humans should have gone extinct long ago.  To read cynics, or the news, you'd think we're likely to go extinct within a generation of two.  Certainly we've done and continue to do some horrific things, as ongoing wars, genocides, and even single events like the murder of Dr. George Tiller illustrate.  Is there any hope for us to progress as a species?

I suppose that depends on how you define progress.  If you mean resolving our differences and living truly beneficent lives, probably not.  But if you mean struggling with our problems and not letting them swamp our potential, our biology and history suggest there's cause for hope.

More below the fold....

Moral Equations, Game Theory, and Human Struggle

Morning Feature began this week by suggesting the murderer of Dr. George Tiller failed in his jihad, his moral struggle.  That failure happened long before he walked into Dr. Tiller's church and pulled the trigger.  The failure of jihad happened when he stopped struggling with the difficult moral questions posed by abortion and decided he'd found a Right Answer for which he was willing to kill an unarmed human being.

The killer rationalized that murder as acceptable, in part, because he didn't see himself and Dr. Tiller as members of the same group.  For the rest of the week, we explored psychologist Jonathan Haidt's research on moral reasoning, which offers five basic principles we use in moral reasoning: (1) avoid harm and care for others; (2) fairness and reciprocity; (3) group identity and loyalty; (4) obedience to authority; and, (5) personal purity, meaning both avoiding what disgusts us and self-denial to serve the greater needs of society.

Wednesday we looked at how progressives and conservatives use different moral equations in examining moral questions.  Haidt's research suggests that progressive weigh more heavily the first two principles - avoid harm and care for others, and fairness and reciprocity - while conservatives weigh all five principles about equally.  In particular, conservatives' greater weighing of group identity and loyalty may suggest they're more likely to conclude "It's OK if You're in My Group."  Thursday we explored group identity and loyalty through the lens of progressives' response to President Obama, and whether we're more or less likely to give someone "the benefit of the doubt" if we identify that person as a member of our own group.  And yesterday we looked at how we both define group identity and encourage group loyalty by the cognitive process called Othering.

I've focused on group identity and loyalty rather than Haidt's other principles for two reasons.  First, both progressives and conservatives generally agree on the importance of the first two principles, and the last two principles - obedience to authority and personal purity - at least to some extent rely on group identity and loyalty.  Authority is a group-based concept, as the source and legitimacy of authority varies according to the group.  And while there seem to be some near universal disgust responses - almost no humans eat their own feces - most of what we identity as personal purity is layered on by culture.

Second, as Haidt notes both at the beginning and again at the conclusion of that video, group identity and loyalty tend to inhibit our seeking of truth.  He notes that these five moral principles really aren't about a quest for "truth" or "virtue."  They are cognitive tools that enable us to cooperate and survive as a social species: a species that lives in and relies on large groups in order to survive.  If we esteem group loyalty too highly, it can yield a mob mentality that subsumes all of the other moral principles.

"So you're saying humans are stupid?"

On the other hand, we are a group-dependent species, and refusing to acknowledge that can cause its own problems.  In a college math class we were studying game theory, which is one of my favorite fields of applied mathematics.  We'd just compared predictions of The Prisoner's Dilemma - a classic game theory problem - with data on how often suspects betray their partners in interrogations.  Even if you use actual conviction rate and sentencing data for the game theory equations, suspects betray their partners less often than the equations predict.

Our professor had noted a similar split between theory and real world behavior in a variation of the Fair Division problem.  In that variation, Able is given a sum of money and told he can divide it between himself and Baker as he wishes.  Game theory says Able should keep all of it, as this satisfies the Pareto Optimal; Baker's situation is unchanged because he never had any of the money to begin with.  But when real people play the game, Able usually offers Baker a roughly 30% split.

"So you're saying humans are stupid?" one of my classmates asked.

"Maybe," our professor replied.  "Or maybe game theorists are stupidly assuming we're all selfish."

The professor went on to explain that almost every mathematical analysis in game theory is premised on each individual trying to maximize his/her individual benefit or minimize his/her individual risk.  But that's not how we humans really think.  We're a social species, and we do consider others when we make decisions.  The professor offered the example of our having house pets, whose costs can be objectively quantified in time and money, but whose benefits are entirely subjective.

She suggested one of those benefits was altruism.  Having a pet gives us someone to care for and to be responsible to and for, and we seem to like that.  Game theory takes no measure of altruism, or at least not directly.  Our professor proposed that the difference between the "optimal" behaviors predicted by game theory and the way we humans actually behave is the measure of altruism.  Haidt's research would support that, as altruism - avoiding harm and caring for others - seems to be a cardinal moral principle.  Haidt suggests that impulse is coded into our DNA to better enable us to cooperate and survive as a social species.

Our human struggle:

Yet I don't need to list examples to prove that human beings can also be selfish, and sometimes horribly so.  Indeed the nightly news often seems almost a catalog of human selfishness.  As we were taught in journalism school, "If it bleeds, it leads."  If we were to watch the news and have no other information on our species, we'd conclude the cynics are right and we should have been extinct long ago, or will be extinct within a few generations.  So which are we, selfish or altruistic?

The answer, for me, is that we're both, and the struggle between those two impulses is an inescapable element of the human condition.  We're selfish because we're individual organisms, or at the very least we experience ourselves that way most of the time.  But we're altruistic because we're a social species, and our sociality is as much a part of our biology as our individuality.

If Haidt's thesis is true and those five moral principles are indeed coded in our biology as evolution's "first draft" of moral reasoning, they would be biological evidence of our struggle to accommodate our individuality and our sociality.  There is ample historical evidence to corroborate that perpetual struggle, from the many religions and other ethical philosophies we've created to our variations on government and the institution law.  We keep trying to find a best balance between our individual desires, our societal needs, our resources, our estimates of virtue, and our inevitable mistakes, misunderstandings, misjudgments, and misdeeds.

When we are at our best, we struggle with the Right Questions in seeking that best balance, at least for a given dispute and for a given moment.  And when we are at our worst, we abandon that struggle, either concluding we've found the Right Answers Once And For All, or giving up and giving in to our own worst instincts and desires.  When we abandon that struggle, we choose pride or cynicism over the frustrating, excruciating questions for which we can find no easy or permanent answers.  We think we understand too much, or we give up on understanding altogether.

Perhaps it's not our duty to understand.  Perhaps our duty is to struggle toward understanding, and to encourage and help each other in that struggle.  Perhaps it's the struggle - not the understanding - that defines our morality.  And if so, I think there's cause for hope.


Happy Saturday!

Originally posted to NCrissieB on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 04:15 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tips for struggling in hope. :) (37+ / 0-)

    We're far from perfect, but I think we're also far from the worst we could be.  We may never Get There, but perhaps the journey itself is our true calling.

    As always, ::smoooooooooooooochies:: to Kula, wherever she is, and ::hugggggggggggggs:: to the Kula Krew!

  •  Good morning Blogistan! and a question (10+ / 0-)

    Today I actually have time to participate here!

    A question for my 6/16 diary, which will be on voting systems.  The essential part of the diary is that, when more than 2 people are running for something (POTUS, an academy award, number 1 rank in college football, chairman of a department, etc) there is no perfect system of voting - all can lead to paradoxes.  But the system we've got (plurality voting) is the worst.  I'll explore alternatives.

    So, I can do it mainly with words, giving examples in a vague sort of way, or I can do a lot of simulations and things.  And I can include some history of spoilers in American elections, or I can leave that out.

    What do you all prefer?

    •  My experience has been ... (8+ / 0-)

      ... that examples often point out and clarify paradoxes better than theoretical descriptions.  I tend to lead with an example, then explore the theory behind the example.  But that's my own tendency, and I don't do it every time, so I wouldn't suggest it in every case.

      Good morning! ::huggggggggs::

    •  hey plf! (8+ / 0-)

      perhaps you could develop a short quiz or ballot or something to illustrate ita nd ask people to take the quiz before reading the rest of your work. Didnt you do something like that before with word associations? yes and i thought it was very effective. I'm not sure what you have in mind for your diary that day or if that would even work in this instance but its just a thought.

      either way I always get a lot from reading your work.

    •  Spoiler elections, please+Poblano phenomenon (9+ / 0-)

      I think spoiler elections will bring the lesson homes in a BIG way to a BIG audience.

      and now a BIG good morning and Good bye. Huuuuuuuuuuuuugs.

      •  Forget Poblano Phenomenon. (6+ / 0-)

        I thought of asking the following and then decided I was asking for an entirely different diary.

        But now that the idea is out there, here is what it was before it was edited out.

        I wonder if the diary could be connected in some future time to an explanation of how Poblano revealed to be Nate Silver and now works, whether he worked in a new way to explain voting results, and why so many people got into the workings of statistical analysis when done pseudononymously. Of course, the political stakes in play made it imperative to understanding what was going on. But there was real interests in statistical methods IIRC.

        •  Poblano, they myserious primany result predictor (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          The whole story needs to be put together, but here is a post that appeared midway between his appearance and his outing himself in May 08 as Baseball Prospectus's Nate Silver.

          and here is one response to that outing, from Newsweek  (there is more to be found a Wikipedia, but this gives you the essential

          Making His Pitches
          Andrew Romano

          It only gets better. For the man behind the blog, outpredicting the experts wasn't anything new—even if outpredicting political experts was. On May 30, Poblano finally revealed his offline name: Nate Silver. Doesn't ring a bell? Chances are you're not a baseball geek. Silver, 30, is already celebrated among ball fans for inventing something called PECOTA. Developed while the University of Chicago econ alum slogged through a post-collegiate consulting gig—"I'm used to not sleeping," he tells NEWSWEEK—PECOTA is now recognized as the most accurate system for forecasting how athletes and teams will perform in the future (down to the number of singles). In 2007, Silver's algorithm enraged at least half of Chicago when it said the White Sox—2005 champs—would post a 72–90 record. Turned out PECOTA was exactly right. For laypeople, the leap from the national pastime to national politics might seem like a stretch. But not for Silver (who posted his first political item on Daily Kos in October). "Baseball and politics are data-driven," he's written. "But a lot of the time, that data might be used badly. In baseball, that may mean looking at a statistic like batting average when things like on-base percentage and slugging percentage are far more correlated with winning ballgames. In politics, that might mean cherry-picking a certain polling result." In other words, different sport—same skill set.

    •  Include spoilers and use simulations please (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      plf515, NCrissieB
  •  good morning Crissie and Krew! (11+ / 0-)

    YAY I also have time this morning. But I;m hosting a a health care kickoff event in my community today (YAY SO EXCITED) so i've got to finish preparing for that (actually i'm done preparing for that. its all the other stuff i need to do normally that i need to knock out this morning. yuk)

    anyway, at the risk of sounding Randian here, I think selfishness and altruism are essentially the same. Couldn't we argue that we perform acts of altruism because they make us feel good about ourselves?  Is there really any such thing as real altruism?

    Think of it this way: consider a time you did something that made you feel awful. Let someone down; did something immoral or illegal or unethical;  think of a time in your life when you did something that really made you feel like shit.  If every time you did something wonderful for someone you felt as bad as the time you did something awful, would you do wonderful things anymore?

    I think altruism is also self interested and self serving.  At the end of the day most everything we do is. I dont think selfishness and altruism are antithetical to each other.

    •  I've heard that Randian analysis ... (12+ / 0-)

      ... that seemingly altruistic acts are actually selfish, therefore we're all selfish all the time.  I don't agree.  What Rand and those who've based their analyses on Rand seem to ignore is that we are a social species.  That sociality is encoded in our DNA, in the huge chunk of our visual cortex that is devoted to facial recognition, in "mirror neurons" that enable us to decode and interpret face and body language, in our language processing facilities, and too many other biological adaptations to list here.

      We are not all about ourselves as individuals, no matter how much some theorists would like to portray us as such.  We are a group species, and it's our ability to communicate and cooperate that enabled us to move from Tree Ape to Plains Ape without becoming Pootie Poop.

      Ignoring our sociality is a conceit, not supported by our biology or our history, enshrining selfishness as our only "real" motive and thus justifying some present political and economic structures as "the natural way."  It says there's one Right Answer - we're all selfish, all the time, even if we think we're not - and thus we ought to base our society on the assumption that everyone will be selfish all the time.

      That's good if you want a Right Answer.  But I tend to distrust people who think they've found Right Answers....

      Good morning! ::huggggggggggs::

      •  hey {{{Crissie}}} (5+ / 0-)

        i hear you, i just dnot sure i agree.  

        I'm not discounting our sociality at all. We are very social creatures and must rely on that sociality for survival, to a greater or lesser degree.

        But, i'm still not sure that if I'm 100% honest with myself that I've ever performed an altruistic act in my life.  That is, an act devoid of self interest.  Even our social interaction is self interested - we need each other to survive.

        I've done a lot of things in my life that outside observers would easily label altruistic. But inside myself, I am positive that those same acts had some additional purpose for me besides being a "great gal" or helping someone,  Even an apparent self-sacrificing act, where I dont receive an immediate benefit, physically or even psychologically, relies on some overall view of the universe as a balanced and just place (I think "this sucks now but i'm doing the right thing and eventually it will come back to me).  

        To me, if i'm really honest, i have to admit that even my altruistic act have some tangible benefit to me. I cannot see anyway to separate it to test whether i can or would act otherwise so I've accepted that mostly I act in self interest and many times, my self interest is also in the interest of others.

        •  Perhaps too high a standard for "altruism?" (6+ / 0-)

          It may be that you're defining "altruism" in a way that essentially makes it a meaningless collection of syllables.  Or, to make that impersonal, you may be buying into a definition of "altruism" that does so.

          And I've seen those definitions put forward often, at least implicitly: "Oh sure, maybe you had some good reason for wanting to help someone else, but there was something in it for you too, right?  Right???"

          If you answer "Yes," then you've confirmed that it was "really" all about you, and thus even your giving serves to confirm their selfishness.

          In other words, the Randian project is about trying to define altruism out of existence - by positing a standard that can never be met - for the purpose of celebrating selfishness.

          That's not exactly a "neutral" definition.  It's a definition tied to an agenda.

          •  Now that's an fascinating perspective, Crissie! (6+ / 0-)

            In other words, the Randian project is about trying to define altruism out of existence - by positing a standard that can never be met - for the purpose of celebrating selfishness.

            Hear, hear!  Maybe that's what we're struggling with.  If we question our motives for our "altruistic" acts enough, we're bound to conclude we're all selfish troglodytes in the end.

            I don't think I want to live in that world.

            Hugs, peace and good morning!  (And we must be on the same Cosmic subway this morning, as I said something similiar to mdmslle below.)

            The austerity you see around you covers the richness of life like a veil -- Anonymous

            by winterbanyan on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 06:45:09 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  it was a great quote (4+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              winterbanyan, NCrissieB, addisnana, kktlaw

              and Crissie is 100% correct. Rand has a motive for advancing that perspective. BUt I dont have to buy into that motive to examine whether part of what she said may have some truth in it.

              In other words, I;d argue with Rand tha YES everything I do IS in my own self interest on some level. BUT I can also do things that are in the interests of myself + others at the same time.  IOW, so what, I'm self interested? That doesnt mean that what I do for myself cannot or should not also benefit others.

              I dont think they are mutually exclusive and that is the flaw in Rand's logic. It lacks nuance.

          •  as much as i disagree with Rand on so much else (5+ / 0-)

            i am separating my feeling about her and her overall philosophy from this one thing. I dont really care that shes trying to define altruism out of existence. She tris to do it to forward the rest of her warped philosophy. I dont have to but one to agree with the other.

            I think I may be defining self interest too broadly, actually. And i have no problem admitting i'm probably incapable of pure acts of altruism.

            But I define self interest as broadly as for example, doing something for someone (say your child) where you KNWO there's no real reward for you...maybe you gave up college to raise the kids.  IMO that act is noble.  But the mental process of making the decision to do that is what interests me.

            "its the right thing to do"
            "there's more important things in life"

            or even

            "I'm morally suprior to those who choose to ignore their kids for their own personal ambition"

            All of these justifications reflect self interest IMO.

            •  PS and I think its OK to be self interested (5+ / 0-)

              and i dont thin it necessarily follows that we act without benefitting others.

              If i am aware that I work at the soup kitchen b/c it makes me feel good about myself, so what?

              If i give away my life savings to some young go getter with a dream for no other reason than it makes me feel good, I've not acted altruistically but neither have I acted selfishly. So what?  

              Rand is flawed in her thinking that to not act altruistically = selfish

              •  I agree :) (4+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                mdmslle, NCrissieB, addisnana, kktlaw

                No reason to be ashamed of being self-interested.  The point is in how far we carry that and in what direction.

                I think we need a certain level of self-interest to survive and remain sane.  And if it makes you feel good to work in a soup kitchen, more power to you. :)

                You're making me think here.  Thank you!

                The austerity you see around you covers the richness of life like a veil -- Anonymous

                by winterbanyan on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 07:19:13 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

              •  Ayn Rand is dead (0+ / 0-)

                Her "philosophy" was sophomoric at best. She was a stupid woman wrapped up in her own narcissism. Why talk about her at all?

                This whole subthread is very perplexing to me. It's almost as if you're completely unaware that a great deal regarding the questions of altruism has been the subject of study for many years.

                You sound like arm chair evolutionists discussing Lamarck as if he were still relevant.

                "No Hay Banda, there is no band, and yet we hear a band"

                by MnplsLiberal on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 11:44:44 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

    •  That's very interesting (9+ / 0-)

      because when I was thinking of what I would do in the Fair Division circumstance, I decided I'd probably either not give my partner any of the money if it worked out that he/she wouldn't know I had the money to divide, or, even more likely, I'd probably divide it 50-50 just so I wouldn't forever feel guilty afterward - not because that would be the right thing to do.  And  I never even considered dividing it so my partner got more than I did!

      Hugs to you and to everyone this morning.

      •  In that Fair Division variant ... (8+ / 0-)

        ... your partner does know you've been given the money, but the researcher makes clear that it's up to you whether and how to share it.  That is, you have no duty to share it, and both you and the partner know you have no duty to share it.

        Most people will offer a roughly 30% share to a stranger, and a more equal split with a friend or family member.

        You mentioned that you would share because you'd feel guilty if you didn't.  But why should you feel guilty?  You've no duty to share it, and your not sharing it hasn't harmed the other person; they lose nothing because they didn't have the money to begin with.  That you consider how they would feel, and you would feel guilty for not sharing, is a measure of what my professor called altruism, or what Haidt might call classify under "avoid harm and care for others" and "fairness and reciprocity."

        Haidt's point is that we humans evolved to consider those questions because considering them makes us better able to cooperate and survive as a social species.  My math professor's point was that when game theorists ignore that, they make predictions based on a theoretical concept - humans as solely individualistic animals - that does not correlate to the real world.

        Good morning! ::hugggggggggs::

        •  I'd still feel (8+ / 0-)

          guilty because I had no particular right to the money either, as I understand it.  If I had done something to earn the money and my partner didn't, that would change my thinking.  But if someone said "Here's $XX you can give some to your partner or not" I'd probably just divide it up evenly.  I'd think more of someone if they did that, so I would do it too - the Golden Rule.  I wouldn't necessarily do it gladly, it would just be the easiest for my mental well-being in the long run.  This is something I know about myself from experience.  When I do something selfish I beat myself up for it.

          •  You're not unusual in that respect. (8+ / 0-)

            Most of us tend to second-guess ourselves - at the very least - when we do something obviously selfish.  To me, that says something hopeful about our species.

            •  asdf (8+ / 0-)

              To me, that says something hopeful about our species.

               - or the Sundays spent at Sunday School in our childhood.  Those are lessons that aren't easily unlearned.  I have come to realize that, in spite of rejecting much about religion, my background of being raised in a church-going family can't be ignored.  It's part of me and I have quit worrying about some of the contradictions I see in my beliefs and behaviors.

              •  If they were good lessons... (6+ / 0-)

                does it matter that they came from Sunday School?  Don't worry about the contradictions.  For me, the source of a moral code is less important than whether it is truly a decent moral code.

                My moral code was formed by arguing against priests and the whole notion of hell, and by arguing for love.

                So I learned my morals in opposition.  Religion played a big part because I read the Beatitudes, and the Gospel of John... and reached my own conclusions, at variance with a lot of what was being spouted from the pulpit at me.

                Oddly, when I complained of this to a Franciscan priest who was visiting our parish, and said, "But isn't God love?" he sighed and said, "My child, some of us, priests included, still have a lot to learn."

                Huggggs and good morning!  (Oh, and I'd have given half the money away.  At least.  Depending on whether the other person needed it more, I might have given all of it.  Or if my kids were going hungry, I might have given none of it.... so you see... LOL)

                The austerity you see around you covers the richness of life like a veil -- Anonymous

                by winterbanyan on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 06:51:07 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  Morals forged, tempered and quenched in (5+ / 0-)

                  the heat of battle. Why am I not surprised? ;-)

                  Good morning, Winter! And :::Huuugggsss:::

                  Information is abundant, wisdom is scarce. The Druid

                  by FarWestGirl on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 07:33:41 AM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  I was not my priest's favorite person. LOL (6+ / 0-)

                    I'd often skip taking the school bus home so I could wander by the parish and badger him about some new moral or religious matter I was pondering.  And we'd sit in the rectory living room, arguing back and forth and finally one day he sighed and said:  "You think about these things in high school????"

                    Uh, yeah.  He told me not to become a nun (my plan at the time).  As he put it, I'd be wasted in a convent.

                    I think he was actually protecting hundreds of Mother Superiors from the possibility of me turning their quiet convents into contentious places.

                    Or not.  He quit the priesthood a few years later. LOL

                    Mega hugggs coming your way!

                    The austerity you see around you covers the richness of life like a veil -- Anonymous

                    by winterbanyan on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 07:39:52 AM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  Yeah, I'm thinking 'obedience' wasn't one of (6+ / 0-)

                      your stronger vocabulary words. lol There is a former nun on DKos who did a diary about her experiences, 'obedience' was one of her stumbling blocks, too. I'd have never made it through the door, I'm fine with authority just as long as they're making sense, and no longer. And I asked many of the same questions you did. We had a nice, quiet, apparently liberal Presbyterian pastor growing up. I started getting interested in Buddhism and Taoism watching Kung Fu, (sad about David Carridine this week), and asked him, when I was about 12, if he thought God'd mind if I checked into it. He thought about it for a sec, asked if either of them stated an authority above God's and when I said, no, he shrugged and said it was probably fine.

                      Information is abundant, wisdom is scarce. The Druid

                      by FarWestGirl on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 08:06:04 AM PDT

                      [ Parent ]

      •  that was my first thought too (7+ / 0-)

        "does my partner know I have the money or not"

        i was very clear about what i would do. If he knew I'd split it 50/50. If he didnt i wouldnt give a dime nor would i tell. And i dont think i'd feel guilty either.

        i guess i suck.

        •  You don't suck! (5+ / 0-)

          Goodness gracious, if the other person suffered no loss by you keeping the money, how could you possibly suck?

          This is a sticky thicket here, and I'd hate it if you picked up any cockleburs...especially over a theoretical :)


          The austerity you see around you covers the richness of life like a veil -- Anonymous

          by winterbanyan on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 07:01:03 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  If we know the partner doesn't know ... (5+ / 0-)

          ... I suspect most of us would be more likely to keep more of the money.  The variant I've seen - I can't find the cite - was where Baker knew Able had been given the money, and Able knew Baker knew.  Basically the researcher steps in while they're both sitting there, hands Able some bills, and says to Able, "I'll let you decide how to divide this, while we finish getting set up in the next room."

          Of course, what was being set up in the next room was a ruse study.  What they were really studying was whether and to what extent Ables would share with Bakers.

    •  Have to disagree a bit, mdmslle :) (10+ / 0-)

      I reached the conclusion that there was no altruism many years ago when I was in high school, before I encountered Rand and her ilk, and reached the conclusion you cite above:  We do good things because they make us feel good about ourselves.

      However, a lot of years of life later I've reached a very different conclusion.  There are acts of altruism performed all the time for which people don't even get to pat their own backs.  I've even managed to engage in a few myself, the pain of which could never be compensated by "feeling good about myself."  A few times I've wondered if I was just plain stupid.

      Whether this is encoded in the species I don't pretend to know.  I just know that not every aspect of altruism can be explained by feeling good about it.

      Hugggs and good morning!

      The austerity you see around you covers the richness of life like a veil -- Anonymous

      by winterbanyan on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 05:49:04 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Wired had an article on the origins of altruism. (4+ / 0-)

      Here is the lede.

      Wired: Altruism’s Bloody Roots
      By Brandon Keim

      By favoring acts of battlefield selflessness, Stone Age warfare might have accelerated the development of altruism.

      A computer model of cultural evolution and between-group competition primed with data taken from studies of mankind’s hyperviolent early years suggests a bloody origin for a celebrated modern behavior.

      "Altruism will be strongly favored if it leads groups to win wars," said Sam Bowles, a Santa Fe Institute economist and institutional theorist, and author of the study, published Thursday in Science. "That would counteract the way that selfish individuals usually dominate the altruistic ones in their groups."

      That the ability to put others’ well-being ahead of one’s own could have such brutal origins seems counterintuitive. Then again, so is altruism. Genes are supposed to be selfish, not self-sacrificing.

      Consider this a preview of coming attractions for tonight's Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday.

      "The party of ideas has become the party of Beavis and Butthead." ~ Paul Krugman.

      by Neon Vincent on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 07:55:57 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  That theory would be more convincing ... (6+ / 0-)

        ... if we didn't see evidence of altruism in other species that don't (seem to) engage in wars.  For example:

        And it would depend on how they're defining altruism.  The definitions I've seen focus on acts with the intention of helping another, and that is by no means limited to humans. :)

        Good morning! ::hugggggggggs::

      •  I gave a more detailed response below. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        In a response to Orinoco.  The research that Wired is reporting, while intriguing, seems to be based on some bad assumptions about the homogeneity of early homo sapiens sapiens, and the degree to which we've task specialized - thus needing to live in larger than immediate family groups - from at least the dawn of our species and perhaps earlier than that.  Given a need to live in larger than immediate family groups, we had an evolutionary payoff for altruism beyond our immediate families, even without making war.

  •  Tips for struggling, succeeding think hope (7+ / 0-)

    Thank you NCrissieB, for this excellent summary of one of our most stimulating weeks.

    As per our discussion of my yesterday kossascope about the them there people yesterday was a very good day in many domains: a very reassuring medical diagnosis for a family members, good project progress, a new great recipe tried for a perfect easy pasta sauce (gotta like anchovies, though), and yes, an unexpected check in the mail.

    except for the shellacking of the Red Sox by the Rangers, it was as good a day as a BlueBayState Pisces could expect.

    I am going to be listening to the President's Cairo speech with a print out of the week's diaries in hand, and then read the diary on Muslim intellectual responses.

    I think that there's an interesting example of progressive principles meeting otherness to be analyzed here.

    but not today. Otta here by 9 dressed to the nines, hat included, for a celebration.

  •  I tried to convey a comment (10+ / 0-)

    yesterday alluding to a general history of moving from a bunch of individuals to a society and realized that I was just attempting to write a book.  But the main point was that as soon as mankind learned to plant crops they became a society; thus they had to develop the "us vs them" mentality, especially toward the peoples who were still hunters, nomads and marauders.
    Developing morality and ethics probably really started at that time, as well as division of labor.
    And that happened only about 10,000 years ago, give or take a few thousand years.  And to think that it only took a few thousand years to develop the wonders of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia from that start.
    So while I think that while the ability to socialize is embedded in our DNA it was a long time before the first humans took that step.
    If we don't kill ourselves off first we may get to the point where the moralities and complexities of today will be passe tomorrow (like slavery only 150 years ago).

  •  Altruism is Straightforward Natural Selection (11+ / 0-)

    In one obvious way at least.

    We evolved in troupes like other great apes. When you're being altruistic in a great ape troupe, you're probably saving some of your own genetic material from dying out.

    Beyond that, yes, obviously there are favors and paybacks even from unrelated members of your species.

    And one more back to genetics, troupe members often need to seek mates from other troupes. Altruism even toward outside troupes with no common family genetics can be a longterm benefit by encouraging a supply of healthy mates.

    Much conservative and libertarian so-called "theory" starts with a premise that human beings are massively unlike what they very obviously are.

    With these people I don't think in terms of philosophical debate as I do of "containment."

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 05:23:56 AM PDT

    •  Natural selection theory is itself "evolving." (11+ / 0-)

      In its infancy, natural selection theory focused on whether a given adaptation makes an individual more or less likely to survive and propagate.  More recent research, or at least some that I've seen in popular journals, is suggesting that may not be a complete explanation, and the truth may be closer to what you're describing: natural selection, at least in social species, favors adaptations that enhance a group's survival even if they have no direct impact on any individual's survival.

      As for this:

      Much conservative and libertarian so-called "theory" starts with a premise that human beings are massively unlike what they very obviously are.

      I agree entirely.  That's why I used the example from my game theory class.  The professor's point was the same as yours: game theorists usually base their equations on a theoretical concept - humans as solely selfish animals - that doesn't correlate to the real world.  We're a social species, and if game theory doesn't factor that sociality into its equations then its predictions are useless.

      Good morning! ::huggggggggggs::

      •  Group selection fallacy (0+ / 0-)

        Genes are actually selfish. Collectivists were able to expound the myth that selfishness could never result in cooperation for many decades, but the jury is back with respect to Selfish Gene Theory.

        Group selection is just a collectivist fantasy.

        "No Hay Banda, there is no band, and yet we hear a band"

        by MnplsLiberal on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 12:10:56 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well why on earth ... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          ... didn't we wait all week for you to show up and tell us the truth on everything?

          •  I have strong views (0+ / 0-)

            Maybe you noticed that? But just because I hold strong opinions on some things (certainly not all) doesn't mean I think I'm always right. I expect to be countered from the opposite direction just as strenuously. But without resorting to personal attacks. Sadly, that seems to be an impossibly high standard here.

            In certain circles on DKos it is not possible to have a discussion if one of the participants, usually me, comes from a place outside of a narrow ideological range. That's my perception anyway.

            Looking forward to your cited study proving group selection. Which is what you'll need if you want true altruism. Unless you believe that biological traits just magically appear.

            "No Hay Banda, there is no band, and yet we hear a band"

            by MnplsLiberal on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 06:09:29 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  You say you have difficulty having a discussion (0+ / 0-)

              on DKos and it seems apparent why:

              You sound like arm chair evolutionists discussing Lamarck as if he were still relevant.

              Nobody in Morning Feature is out to prove group selection, except you. The discussions here on Morning Feature are thoughtful, probing questions and ideas that help us all enrich ourselves morally, intellectually, and socially. It does seem you came back to this diary to further comment, in a pretty judgmental way (again), so maybe you did learn something after all.

              •  You will need to prove it (0+ / 0-)

                if you want your altruism. Some of the comments here have been trying to define altruism as being in the interest not of the individual but of the social group. And that would make sense if true but the problem is that natural selection only works for individuals.

                Therefore, if you want your version of altruism you need to show that there is such a things as group selection. As far as I know there is no such thing. There may be some studies that might support it but I don't believe group selection has been unequivocally demonstrated. It is a matter of some debate.

                A much better explanation would be along the lines of Pinker or other Evolutionary Psychologists. But you'll have none of that because it doesn't pass your ideological dogma purity test. You're no different than wingnuts, you politicize science that disagrees with your ideology.

                "No Hay Banda, there is no band, and yet we hear a band"

                by MnplsLiberal on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 09:25:44 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

            •  It's not your ideological range that offends. (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              It's those "strong views" of which you seem so proud, which essentially boils down to "This is my opinion and if you can't give me scientific proof that I'm wrong, then I'm right and you're wrong."  It's your arrogance, not your ideology, that offends people.

              You haven't proved you even understand what selfish gene theory is, let alone proving its validity.  And selfish gene theory is not that evolution selects individuals rather than groups.  Selfish gene theory is that evolution favors genes that are more likely to be perpetuated, regardless of whether they make the host organism "better" by any measure other than the gene's own perpetuation.

              I'm not going to explain further because you've shown no interest in participating in discussion beyond telling everyone they're wrong and demanding they prove otherwise.  If you want to offer a developed thesis supported by evidence, we can discuss it.  But I've learned not to waste my time arguing against "Nuh uh."  And so far that's all you've provided.

          •  HA! And he seems to know the truth, so I guess (0+ / 0-)

            all the insight and knowledge I gained from reading this fine series was all for naught! Good evening and huggggs, Crissie! Life seems to be returning to normal so hope to see y'all tomorrow.

  •  Interesting fact...or not. (8+ / 0-)

    I spent about 16 years of my life teaching Game Theory, on and off.

    •  On its own ... (8+ / 0-)

      ... it's not a very interesting fact.  On the other hand, were you to share some of your insights from having taught the topic, it would be a very interesting fact.... ;)

      Good morning! ::hugggggggggggs::

    •  Interesting... (8+ / 0-)

      I have been pondering the idea of writing a regular diary series summarizing the game theory lectures of Benjamin Polak at Yale University (available through Yale's "Open Yale" initiative, although I found out about them from Academic Earth via Slate magazine.

      I have no study experience in game theory outside of having listened to the first six or eight of Polak's lectures, but I can certainly listen to a lecture and make notes of what is talked about. My idea was to make Kossacks more aware of the Open Yale and Academic Earth initiatives, and also make more of us aware of Game Theory.

      •  Having looked at those (and they're good!) ... (7+ / 0-)

        ... have you any thoughts on game theory's tendency to treat the players as individuals who have entirely selfish motives and only cooperate if the rules of a game steer them toward cooperation?

        Good morning! ::huggggggggggggs::

        •  I think game theory is / will be... (5+ / 0-)

          ...part of any genuine science of human relations, in much the same way that Newton's laws of motion are part of modern physics. One can describe bodies in motion using fairly simple equations -- provided that one can discount air resistance, relativistic effects, etc. Air resistance or relativistic effects don't invalidate Newton, but the results from his equations have to be corrected in those cases.

          Similarly, the fact that the results predicted by game theory don't always agree with "real life" doesn't invalidate game theory, but a given application may have to be corrected for "relativistic" ("You WILL share with your little sister!") effects.

          But I am but a student of game theory, and not a very advanced one, either. Ask me again after I've listened to ALL of Professor Polak's lectures.

          •  Deal! :) (5+ / 0-)

            Let me know when you've finished his lectures, and we can chat more about it.  I write about game theory fairly often here in Morning Feature.  It's one of my favorite fields of applied mathematics, and for the reasons you suggest: it helps us understand many social sciences a bit better.

            The comparison to Newton's equations may be a bit off, however.  Had Newton's formulae proposed that g (acceleration due to gravity) was 12m/sec^2 because that number yielded elegant results, but empirical measurements didn't match those results, we wouldn't say "The number is right but masses in the real world accelerate more slowly because they're stupid."  We'd say Newton made a math mistake.

            Where game theory makes predictions about optimal behavior that are clearly contrary to how most of us behave, to me that suggests a problem with implicit assumptions in the theory rather than a problem with stupid humans. :)

            •  As someone who... (4+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Orinoco, winterbanyan, NCrissieB, kktlaw

              ...has "[written] about game theory fairly often," and as someone who has experience writing regular diaries, what do you think of my writing a regular diary series summarizing Polak's lectures, as I suggested above? Does it make you think "Jeez, who does this naif think he is, anyway?" That goes for Robyn too, and anyone else who has more knowledge of game theory than I have (which is just about everyone).

              The form of the diaries I propose to write would be something like, "Professor Polak says..." I personally doubt I have any particularly valuable insights about game theory to share, but if I can inspire other people to take up the study, I can feel I've done something worthwhile. (What would game theory say my motivation was in that case? ;) )

              •  My suggestion, and it's only a suggestion ... (4+ / 0-)

                ... is that at least you share in each diary how a given lecture challenged, encouraged, or influenced your own thinking.  A matter of "I hadn't thought of this until I saw this lecture, but...."  Or better, if you can, try to find a way the lecture you're discussing applies to some topic in the news, either a recent event or an ongoing policy debate.  Either way, you're adding something to Polak's lecture and not simply telling us about something we could (and I think more people should) see for ourselves.

                But that's just my approach.  That's what I try to do here with Morning Feature.  And please don't think you need to know all of the answers.  I've read a fair bit of game theory, but I'm no expert on it.  It interests me, and to the extent something I know about game theory relates to a topic I'm exploring, I'll include that as a perspective on the topic.  But I don't have all the answers, or even pretend to.  I write to explore rather than to expound, and what I hope for in Morning Feature is to invite a dialogue wherein reasonable people can reasonably disagree, where we can teach and learn from each other.

                We may call ourselves Blogistan Polytechnic Institute, and we do a fair bit of teaching and learning in our discussions, but I see all of us as "the faculty."  Except on Sundays and Mondays.  Then we're all the staff, because the faculty are down in the wine cellar library practicing our institute motto of Magis vinum, magis verum ("More wine, more truth").  So the rest of us get to relax and play....

              •  Some of the best teaching comes from people... (3+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                NCrissieB, kktlaw, Edward Spurlock

                ...who are learning themselves, since they know what they had difficulty with and avoid the tendency to gloss over such issues which someone who didn't struggle with them might do.

              •  I say write it, definitely! It's an intriguing to (2+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                NCrissieB, Edward Spurlock

                me, and when Crissie has written about game theory, it always spurs a lively discussion. It's an interesting adjunct to the human sciences, and one that hasn't been explored enough.

                I would only suggest that instead of calling it "Professor Polak says...", that you maybe use a more open title like "Ask Professor Polak." Crissie uses a provocative style, always asking for ideas and input, and that makes "Morning Feature" an always civil discourse. I fear that your "says" title would provoke more negative and argumentative responses, and IMO, we have more than enough of those on DKos! Good luck, and I will surely be watching for your diaries!

                •  Thank you for your suggestions... (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:

                  Actually, "Professor Polak says..." was more my idea of an organizing principle for a regular diary, rather than the actual title. My working title for the series is "Game Theory Thursdays" -- I work weekends and have Tuesdays and Wednesdays off, so preparing a diary to be published every Thursday is natural for me. Also, there are fewer weekly diaries published on Thursdays than any other day except Mondays (according to the FAQ). And of course, "Game Theory Thursday" is alliterative, which appeals to me.

    •  You rarely talk about your experiences of (5+ / 0-)

      teaching, Robyn. C'mon, share   ;-)

      Information is abundant, wisdom is scarce. The Druid

      by FarWestGirl on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 07:07:02 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  a thought on group identity and loyalty (10+ / 0-)

    When Limbaugh was caught up in the oxycontin investigation, Ann Coulter had some interesting answers about it in an interview she gave.  The thing was she desparately wanted to be supportive of Limbaugh on the basis of his being innocent or setup, etc., but was ultimately driven to concede that she wanted him to skate from legal peril because he was a part of her group and she was loyal to him. It was almost palpably painful for her to divulge her basis for support, as if it were a shameful thing, and, indeed, it was, given what a narrow vision of group identity it betrayed and what a total abandonment of other values, like justice, it required.  I think the interview sticks with me cause it dug past superficial gunk and revealed core values and beliefs.  To put it in the context of Dr Haidt's world, she tipped her equation.  Now, to me it is a wrong-headed equation(I wonder if  even she didn't see it was wrong-headed), but it seems pretty clear that we'd have a better, if not good, chance at coexistence if we all put our equations on the table.    

    •  Putting our equations on the table. (6+ / 0-)

      That's part of what I've been advocating for all week in this series.  Putting our equations on the table serves two goals:

      1. It makes us acknowledge that they are our equations, and others may not share them.  So we need to examine them and, to the extent we're committed to them, advocate for them as a first step in any moral discussion.
      1. Our putting our equations on the table encourages our discussion partners to acknowledge and examine their equations.  They may or may not do it every time, but I think they're at least somewhat more likely to do so if we put ours out there.

      Notice that I didn't include a third goal, a postulated Hegelian synthesis wherein through discussion we discern The Ideal Equation.  I don't think such an equation exists.  Acknowledging and examining our moral equations, refining them when we find flaws, and making them part of our moral discourse are all worthwhile and attainable goals.  They're part of the "struggle."  Finding The Ideal Equation ... eh ... I'd be very suspicious were anyone to make such a claim....

      Good morning! ::huggggggggggs::

  •  Would be interesting to run 'dilemma' (4+ / 0-)

    using quantum vs. binary processing and see if it becomes more predictive.

    -7.25 -8.15 Right Wrongs Nobody

    by mydailydrunk on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 05:46:15 AM PDT

    •  Would you like to explain a bit more? (5+ / 0-)

      It sounds like a fascinating thought, but I'd need to hear more of it before I could respond. :)

      Good morning! ::huggggggggggs::

      •  more closely replicate human's "fuzzy" thinking (4+ / 0-)

        instead of the either/or binary processing, it would be either/or/and/but.

        From ""

        Today's computers, like a Turing machine, work by manipulating bits that exist in one of two states: a 0 or a 1. Quantum computers aren't limited to two states; they encode information as quantum bits, or qubits, which can exist in superposition.

        Because a quantum computer can contain these multiple states simultaneously, it has the potential to be millions of times more powerful than today's most powerful supercomputers.

        -7.25 -8.15 Right Wrongs Nobody

        by mydailydrunk on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 06:04:59 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Oh, I understood that much. :) (4+ / 0-)

          I was wondering whether you meant the deeper sense that our thinking may be partly stochastic.  The transmission of neural impulses is near enough to the quantum level that the Strong Law of Large Numbers doesn't entirely swallow quantum uncertainty.

          The research suggests that it may be better to examine our decisions as stochastic - boundedly random - rather than truly rational-deterministic.  If that turns out to be true, it would explain why we can make an error on a simple task that we do all the time and usually do very well.

          It would also suggest hoping for perfection is a truly futile exercise, because at least some of our imperfections may be grounded in the inescapably stochastic nature of quantum events.

          •  way beyond my paygrade - lol (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Orinoco, winterbanyan, NCrissieB

            ...explain why we can make an error on a simple task that we do all the time and usually do very well.

            Biological "ghost in the machine"?

            What sort of redundancy do we have in our brains to assist in error-correction of anticipated outcomes of simple tasks?

            Lots of food for thought.

            -7.25 -8.15 Right Wrongs Nobody

            by mydailydrunk on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 07:43:35 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  That's a good question. (3+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Orinoco, winterbanyan, mydailydrunk

              Most of the time our "ghost in the machine" errors seem to be on very basic tasks - miscalculating an addition or such - where we're probably not firing a lot of neurons to do the thought.  The more neurons we're firing, and the more of them we're firing in parallel rather than in sequence, the more the Strong Law of Large Numbers works in our favor.

              Where human decision making falls on the physical scale between quantum events and see-touch events (like dropping an egg, which involves millions of quantum events and is thus very predictable) is an as yet unanswered question.  If we're nearer the quantum level, then our decisions would be more stochastic, and in fact we see evidence of that in many things we do (e.g.: shooting a basketball).  We can do an act very well on average, but not perfectly every time, and sometimes the mistakes have no discernible causation.

              The moral implications there are not trivial.  If some of our decision making is stochastic due to quantum uncertainty, then while we may still be responsible to favor decision making strategies that reduce the probability of error, at some level we're not in full control of our own thoughts.

              That's a proposition many find profoundly uncomfortable.

  •  a social species functions with social brains (8+ / 0-)

    I'm glad to see folks tune into Prof. Haidt's work. I strongly suspect it's important, fundamental stuff. (I wrote a bit about it in a blog a while back.)

    As some other comments note, it really shouldn't surprise us that a social species has a deeply embedded mechanism for social behavior. But in our culture we sometimes stop paying attention to the obvious, so we can be surprised by it anyway.

    Good stuff! Thanks for initiating this good and important conversation.


  •  Here's Haidt's talk on YouTube. (6+ / 0-)

    I had to run off to work before I could locate and post this in the comments for Wednesday.  I hope "better late than never" applies here.

    Jonathan Haidt: The real difference between liberals and con

    Psychologist Jonathan Haidt studies the five moral values that form the basis of our political choices, whether we're left, right or center. In this eye-opening talk, he pinpoints the moral values that liberals and conservatives tend to honor most.

    "The party of ideas has become the party of Beavis and Butthead." ~ Paul Krugman.

    by Neon Vincent on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 07:47:24 AM PDT

  •  Damn, I'm sorry I'm late to the diary. (5+ / 0-)

    And I'm sorry I missed this series until now.  Here's my comment, probably to be read by me alone.

    This week I wrote a diary entitled Christians and rationalists are more alike than different.  I doesn't seem that far-fetched a proposition to me, but I met with insistent and bullying rejection of the very idea.  This is an example of fine progressives practicing making a group "other."  This discussion here gives a clue, I think, as to why people do so.

    In order to convince people to kill others, to exploit them, or even to adamantly reject their lifestyle, the altruistic impulse must be overcome.  People know intuitively that the people living in Iraq and the ghettos in their town are like them.  And people are instinctively wired to want to help others.  This instinct is overcome by portraying people as different.

    I think the bullying arguments for capitalism over any form of collective government are a similar attempt to over-ride our basic instincts.  I heard an interview on NPR with the fellow who started the micro-loans.  He gave an analogy of people helping a stranger in the street.  The interviewer said, "Oh yeah, like enlightened self-interest."

    He responded, "No.  Just to help."

    Hesitant, sounding confused, the interviewer asked again, "Yes, but because it benefits us, too?"

    "No.  People want to help others.  It's done just for the sake of helping others."

    The interviewer fell silent for a moment before moving on to another topic.

    It's sad how confused much of our country is when it comes to this.

    Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace.

    by geomoo on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 08:07:52 AM PDT

    •  You're not too late. :) (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Orinoco, geomoo, winterbanyan, addisnana

      And welcome!

      Yes, altruism has been given a bad rap - pardon my dated turn of phrase - in part because Rand and some followers proposed an absurdly exclusive definition for it.  The definitions I've seen are simply acting with the intention of helping another.  Not an exclusive intention, but simply one of often several intentions.  Ayn Rand proposed that if altruism were not the exclusive intention - if there was any benefit desired or that could be imputed - then it wasn't altruism at all.  It was just self-interest.  That definition was, of course, offered to justify her philosophy based entirely on ... selfishness.

      In Ayn Rand's formulation, our sociality as a species is irrelevant.  That none of us has all of the skills and interests that all of us need - thus that we need each other to survive - is either denied or written off as some failure of society to properly raise a collection of self-sufficient individuals.  But we were never a collection of self-sufficient individuals.  We're a social species whose brains and bodies evolved, in part, to facilitate that sociality.

      That includes our altruism impulse: our desire to care for others.  That doing so may also please us in some way doesn't diminish the fact that we do act to care for others, and we seem to begin doing that at a pre-verbal stage so it's not entirely a learned value.  We see similar behaviors in other social mammals - as Haidt notes in his lecture - and that adds to the inference that altruism is coded into our DNA.

      And given that we're a social species, it would make sense that altruism would be coded into our DNA.  That may be inconvenient for Randians, but science ought not be governed by its convenience to any political or economic theory....

      Good morning! ::huggggggggggggs::

      •  One way of looking at it. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Orinoco, NCrissieB

        It takes a lot of energy to separate people from their altruistic impulses--think of the propaganda to turn Muslims into terrorists, for example.

        My thought isn't fully formed, but I'm wanting to point out that authoritarians like the neo-cons are quite threatened by collectivism, they put a lot of energy into undermining it.  I'm thinking of it as bullies trying to keep the group from ganging up on them.

        Such a vague comment in response to your quite informative and right on comment.  Oh well.  Terrific diary and comment.

        And good morning.  I need to start keeping up with your diaries better--both interesting and sweet.  My experience with the diary I mentioned above has left a sour taste in my mouth.  Your interesting and gentle discussion is just what the doctor ordered.

        As an aside, speaking of letting science determine its own outcomes, my burning passion has become to get would-be rationalists to be more true to their claimed desire to be reality-based.  I see a lot of unconscious impulses going unquestioned and it bothers me a lot, it seems dangerous to our society, especially coming from the people who I count on to be true to logical thought and scientific knowledge.  I'm in an internal debate whether it's worth the abuse I will receive to take this problem on.

        Anyway, this has been a valuable diary to me.  When mostly jerks are around, it's easy to forget that there are a lot of good, and accountable, people here.

        Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace.

        by geomoo on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 09:14:42 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I think we benefit by questioning assumptions. (0+ / 0-)

          And we're generally open to doing that in Morning Feature.  We often disagree, to be expected when we question assumptions, but we try to express our disagreements in ways that encourage more dialogue, rather than shutting each other down.  Most of us try to explore together, to talk with rather than at each other.  So please do join us more often!

    •  Great comment, geomoo :) (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Orinoco, geomoo, NCrissieB, addisnana

      And a great look into a mind that can't deal with helping others when there's no apparent benefit.

      I agree, it's sad that we've gotten to a point when so many need to see "a return on investment."

      I get no "return on my investment" when I give a beggar ten dollars.  I can't even be sure he needs it, or that he'll spend it on something besides drugs or booze.  I walk away never knowing.

      All I know is that I tried to help someone in some way.

      We need to get back to that before we fall apart as a society.

      Good morning!

      The austerity you see around you covers the richness of life like a veil -- Anonymous

      by winterbanyan on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 08:22:20 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Asking for help (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Orinoco, winterbanyan, NCrissieB

    All the altruism talk made me think of asking for help. When, how, who to ask, when does it feel okay or good and when is it hard. I usually like to be asked to help. I sometimes have a hard time asking for help.

    Is this an extension of the altruism discussion or have I wandered way off topic?

    •  I don't think you're OT :) (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Orinoco, NCrissieB, addisnana

      A priest of my recent acquaintance once said something I found quite insightful:  "Never be afraid to ask for help, because when you ask for help, you give someone else the opportunity to do good."

      They are, in effect, sides of the same coin.

      Huggs and good morning, addisnana. :)  Always a pleasure to see you!

      The austerity you see around you covers the richness of life like a veil -- Anonymous

      by winterbanyan on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 08:46:28 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  It's very relevant! (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Orinoco, winterbanyan, addisnana

      It's difficult to ask for help, and I'm not sure how much of that is cultural and how much is simply that we want to avoid being in someone's debt.  But if no one ever asks for help, and we all wait to help until someone asks, no one would ever get help ... and our social species would quickly collapse.

      That means sometimes we need to ask for help, and sometimes we need to offer to help without waiting being asked.  In that respect it's rather like Vic Braden's comment about the (bad) rule that tennis players who want to improve should only play stronger players.  If everyone followed that rule, Braden noted, no one could play anyone and no one could improve!

      Good morning! ::huggggggggggs::

  •  This is sweet, but: (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Orinoco, NCrissieB

    ...the difference between the "optimal" behaviors predicted by game theory and the way we humans actually behave is the measure of altruism...

    I will agree that "the difference" INCLUDES altruism, but I think it also includes sheer stupidity and utter apathy.

    Banking "Quants" operated under the assumption that human economic behavior could be reduced to equations -- an assumption has brought us to the edge of economic ruin.

    Even Bubbles Greenspan was "shocked, shocked" that economic players could not be trusted to always act in their own best long-term interests. Amazing how that happens when you pay CEO's by their short-term performance!

    I know the special interests and lobbyists are gearing up for a fight as we speak.
    My message to them is this: So am I -- President Barack Obama

    by Jimdotz on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 09:32:59 AM PDT

    •  I think the valid measurements of altruism (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Jimdotz, NCrissieB

      come when the human behavior in question is behavior in a game, set up to preclude confounding factors like apathy or stupidity or ignorance. I don't think anyone is generalizing from game theory straight to ordinary human behavior out in the world.

      It's an experiment. A set up where game theory predictions are straightforward, confounding variables are eliminated, and the subject's behavior can be measured and quantified.

      Good almost lunch time! :) and ::hugggggggggs:: to the Kula Krew and all and sundry.

      "You can't get something for nothing...It's time to stop being stupid." Bob Herbert

      by Orinoco on Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 11:04:30 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Actually they do. :) (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Orinoco, Jimdotz

        See Neon Vincent's comment upthread about new research, conducted by an economist using computer models based in game theory, suggesting that altruism emerged because it was useful in war.  If you read the source article in Wired, the research seems to be firmly grounded in game theory GIGO: bad assumptions about why humans behave as we do and how that works out for us.

        The original research seems to assume a homogeneity of human capability - even a small family group would be equally capable of anything humans need to survive - that leaves only war as a necessary mass activity.  Ergo, altruism outside one's immediate family must have emerged to make us better able to wage war.

        But paleontological research suggests we've never been a homogeneous species.  Our diversity in skills and interests has been one of our species' strengths back to the dawn of our species, thus some of us were very good at doing certain things and others of us very good at doing other things, with our survival and development relying on all of those things being done by some among our groups.

        If that's true, then we needed to live in larger groups from at least from the time we emerged as a species, and we may have emerged from other species that lived in larger groups.  Our need to live in large groups - larger than immediate family, so it was likely the group would include all of the skill sets necessary for our survival - would place an evolutionary premium on altruism from the dawn of our species.

        And the paleontology supports that.  The speech facilities - placement and shape of the larynx, changes in the shape of the tongue and mouth, voluntary diaphragmatic muscle control, etc. - seem to predate the enlargement of our cranium that made room for a larger brain, needed to accommodate our capacity for complex language and thought.

        That larger brain is considered one of the markers of our species; it differentiates us from previous hominids.  That it developed to accommodate already existing speech facilities suggests we were already trying to communicate in complex ways, suggesting we were already delegating tasks among members of our groups, suggesting we already had enough task diversity that we needed to be in larger groups ... and thus would already benefit by altruism beyond merely caring for our immediate genetic offspring.

        But if that task diversity, thus the need for large groups, isn't present in the computer model ... you get a very different set of evolutionary drivers.  A different assumption about homogeneity gives you altruism developing to facilitate making war.  GIGO.

        Good afternoon! ::hugggggggggggs::

    •  Actually what I'm suggesting ... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      ... is that we're probably better at acting in our interests - individual and social - than "experts" think we are.  Their "expert" assessments of optimal behavior tend to have their own biases built in, and among those in game theory (and its progeny, such as economics) is the exclusivity of self-interest as a human motivation.  It's an atomized view of humanity where we coalesce into groups only in to serve some self-interest, rather than acknowledging that group survival and traits that favor it were part of our evolution from before our species' emergence as a species.

      That Quaints can devise formulae they claim will predict our behavior, then be shocked when we don't behave like their equations predict, speaks to the ubiquity of GIGO in Quaint-ism: garbage in, garbage out.  Rigor in predictive method can't surmount the bad assumptions on which the predictions are based.

      Good afternoon! ::hugggggggggs::

  •  Genetics of culture (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Our "socialness" implies culture. Without culture, we wouldn't be a society, just an aggregation of individuals, like a flock of blackbirds.

    It is true that some fundamental moral values, such as fairness and reciprocity, appear to be hard-wired-- genetic adaptations that give us a head start towards cooperation, and thereby have allowed us to thrive as a social species. Of course, we have other hard-wired stuff too, more primitive, rooted deeper in our evolutionary past, before the first social group of proto-primates, before even Darwin's fish first crawled from one drying mud puddle to the next. Those would be the selfish impulses, the ones that tell us to eat, fuck, kill, or run from other creatures that come near, and if none of those apply, to ignore them.

    Ladies and germs, I give you today's Republican Party!

    Snark aside, we humans have layered culture upon our genetic inheritance, quite elaborately so, allowing us to leverage our social natures to such effect that we now occupy every corner of every continent save Antarctica. Just as genes must prove their survival value to avoid elimination from the gene pool, so culture must do the same. Those human groups that develop culture too far in an unhelpful direction risk perishing as a group (individuals may survive, absorbed into other groups). When the group disappears, so does its culture. Cultures that promote survival are retained, and those that do not are eliminated, in a way that is analogous to genetic evolution.

    Sadly for progressives (or at least for this progressive), cultural survival is not necessarily a function of those values that are distinctively progressive. Sweetness and generosity are helpful in many circumstances, but do not necessarily equal survival. A tranquil and egalitarian island paradise can be overrun by domineering brutes with better weapons. A successful culture must do more than deliver a good life to its membership, it must be able to compete adequately with other cultures.

    This helps explain the current global dominance of corporate capitalism. It may not deliver a good life to many people, but it has been an outstanding competitor vs other cultures. (Stay tuned to see how this develops-- we shall see how the Friedmanite variant performs. My hunch is that it is evolving towards extinction. If only we could live on Schadenfreude!)

    As with genetic adaptation, cultural adaptation is meaningful only in the context of some environment. Adaptation to what? An adaptation that conferred survival value to individuals or groups under one set of environmental conditions, may become detrimental if the environment changes. I think this is at the heart of the global sustainability challenge. Our western culture is adapted to conditions of geographic emptiness and resource abundance, but now faces conditions of fullness and scarcity. We have the inborn capacity for altruism, fairness, loyalty to the greater good. Can we direct those values into cultural channels that are adapted to the environmental realities of this century, or will we follow our old ways into the abyss?

    •  There you're into Social Darwinism ... (0+ / 0-)

      ... and that's a theory with a very toxic history.  The idea that cultures are competing organisms and only the fittest will survive has both ontological and ethical burdens that I doubt you really want to carry.

      You can make a stronger case for social strategies working in favorable conditions, and our egoistic tendency to credit our strategies and discount the conditions.  We tend to focus on our decisions and actions to the exclusion of extrinsic conditions that made those decisions and actions workable.  When we do that, we impute more utility to the strategy than a more rigorous analysis really supports.  That it worked in those conditions does not prove its utility in other conditions.

      Thanks for the comment! ::huggggggggggs::

      •  Oh dear (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        "Social Darwinist" is a tag that is difficult to escape once it is applied. Sort of like "child molestor", which, by the way, I'm not one of those either.

        I suppose the reason is that if it were true, the implications would be so dreadful that it begins to seem prudent for others to assume the worst until better is proven, rather than our normal posture of assuming innocence unless guilt is proved. And the reason the implications are so dreadful is that the phrase (which, let the record show, I did not use!) has been used by dreadful people to excuse dreadful things. In particular, to dispense with cultural values derived from compassion and empathy, on the grounds that they undermine fitness.

        It is easy to hoist the Social Darwinists on their own petard. A century ago, they were the advocates of eugenics, of crackpot theories of race and/or class superiority, of romantic notions of the White Man's Burden. Rather like the Heritage Institute in our time, they provided a veneer of intellectual cover for greed-heads and psychopaths to do monstrous things, culminating in the Nazi horror. So how'd that work out for them? I'd say they evolved themselves (nearly) out of existence. If we were to generalize from this observation, it appears that values like care, fairness, and treatin' people decent DO confer survival value upon cultures that incorporate them.

        More recently, we have the fascinating case of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the interpretation of that event in the West. Although they no longer call themselves Social Darwinists, many of the Western elites assumed that it represented the Triumph of Capitalism against the Communist Menace, and hence as proof of the Virtues of Capitalism. This view has contributed, in the years since, to false conclusions such as that even more radical capitalism would be even better, or that any form of economic regulation, any intentional, coordinated social strategy, is  equivalent to centralized authoritarian control. But my revisionist view is that the USSR perished from its own internal dysfunction, more so than as a result of something we did. Their passing may have proved their own lack of fitness as a culture, but it said nothing about our fitness. The fact that they died first, does not mean we are not sick.


        I agree with you that, when this culture fails and that one thrives, it is dangerous to assume that specific cultural differences were the determining factor. Often, with benefit of historical perspective, we can see that externalities such as climate change or geographic happenstance made the outcomes all but inevitable. I've read Jared Diamond, and I assume you have too :)

        But in a very long perspective, looking at the 8,000 years or so since the emergence of agriculture and civilization in a few scattered spots around the planet, it is beyond argument that that civilization itself has gradually eclipsed the formerly universal, tribal, hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Less obviously, but still true I think, it would be hard to argue that the reason for this long trend was that civilized societies consistently delivered better lives to most of their members. In fact, the opposite may be true-- the hunter-gatherers were certainly more free and equal, and likely at least as healthy, happy, and long-lived as their civilized counterparts, during almost all of those 8,000 years (I believe Diamond makes this point somewhere). And yet civilization has prevailed nonetheless. It seems at least reasonable to describe this long trend as one cultural form out-competing another under the then-prevailing conditions.


        Sorry for the length of this comment-- didn't want to let the Social Darwinism tag just lie there. Are we good now?

        •  Oh we're fine. No worries. :) (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          My point was that describing cultures in terms of evolving organisms buys a whole big pile of problems that I'm sure you didn't want.

          That's why I prefer to think of cultures adopting strategies to help solve the problems they face.  While the strategic options aren't strictly choices in that not everyone gets to participate in choosing them, and you could argue there's some analog for 'natural selection' in which strategies are chosen, they are still choices.  Not random mutations that may or may not offer some benefit and that will be sifted out by natural selection, but choices that were structured toward some benefit and may or may not work as intended.

          Which is a way of saying that while there is zero evidence for 'intelligent design' in the emergence of our species, there is ample evidence for 'intelligent design' in the emergence and survival of our cultures.  The intelligence in their design is our intelligence.  We're responsible for them, for good and for ill.

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