Altruism Revisited

It’s been about five years since I first wrote that altruism in human society had evolved through five stages. This concept of a five-way split started as an essay, graduated to my webpage, and eventually became one of the more centrally important chapters in my book, Culture Wars and the Global Village. Meanwhile I read a dozen or more books that bore on the subject, offering different slants, and found that on the whole my classification held up pretty well. Now it’s time to revisit my classification system, and explore some of its implications.

The first level of altruism is found in many animals. It is dictated by the “selfish gene” principle. A mother protects her young, for her offspring are central to her biological purpose of passing her genetic patterns on to following generations. Not only altruism by parents toward offspring, but also altruism between siblings can be explained in this relatively simple and straightforward manner.

The second level is based on what has come to be known as “reciprocal altruism.” Chimps and other primates travel in bands larger than basic family-sized groups, because this pattern has provided enough survival value to become ingrained in their genetic material. Their behavior is similar to that of some herbivores that also travel in groups, but is more sophisticated in that individual chimps learn from experience about other members of the group. They learn, among other things, which other members of the group are likely to return favors; and this affects their behavior. Thus individual behavior patterns are at least partly learned, but the basic pattern of behaving altruistically toward other members of a tribe-sized in-group is genetic or “hard-wired.”

What is it that enables individual chimps to identify themselves as members of one group and not another, and enables them to distinguish between other members of their group, and outsiders? The answer is recognition, based on detailed physical features, behavioral patterns, and perhaps other factors like smell. Even today, people have elaborate sensory and neural mechanisms for distinguishing people they recognize and already “know” from strangers. Those mechanisms go way back.

While our chimp-like ancestors were evolving into humans, this instinct for socialization evolved with them, in a new and distinctive way made possible by the evolution of language and a capacity to communicate and retain abstract thoughts.
Increasingly, the individuals most likely to achieve reproductive success were those who could demonstrate verbal fluency, and leadership not just in the sense of being the biggest and strongest, but in the new senses of being adept at solving problems, and skillful at managing intra-group relations. King Kong was no longer the automatic ruler, the individual most successful at spreading his genes: his role was rapidly being supplanted by the ancestors of Einstein and Machiavelli.

During this period the human brain grew rapidly, in terms of the time scales usually required for such radical evolutionary changes. It evolved hand in hand with what increasingly became recognizable as human culture. It was a case of mutual feedback, with each incremental advance on one side supporting, even demanding, a comparable advance on the other. Life became more complicated, as people became more verbal, socially conscious, and sophisticated; and increasingly elaborate social mechanisms had to be invented to maintain social equilibrium within the group. Language emerged as a defining characteristic of a given group, as important as territory was for the earlier primates from which humans had sprung. Religion emerged as a means of answering the new questions that the new intelligence made it possible to ask. It soon became another cultural marker, distinguishing one social group from another.

During this long period of genetic and cultural co-evolution, individual social groups gradually became bigger and more complex, but remained constrained by the requirement that every member of the group “know” every other member. That is, members of the group continued to feel comfortable only when they could recognize every other member of the group through much the same forms of physical recognition they had inherited from their remote ancestors. After all, what was the point of being altruistic to a complete stranger? If he wasn’t part of your own tribe or in-group, how could you be assured the favor you were granting him would be returned? If you knew who he was, you could fit him into a web of personal relations of which you were a part; otherwise, any dealings with him entailed an element of risk.

Beginning roughly 40,000 years ago, human social organizations began to grow too complicated for this pattern to endure, except in marginal parts of the world where the people had not progressed very much. Tribes became loosely joined in confederations, held together by exogamous marriage practices and annual ritual get-togethers. Then, about 10,000 years ago, some brave spirits learned to grow crops and domesticate animals and all hell broke loose. Population increased rapidly; many new and complex problems confronted the old tribal-sized groups and demanded new solutions that required cooperation on a grander scale than ever before. People had to cooperate with each other across tribal boundaries whether they knew each other as individuals or not. You simply had to learn which strangers to trust, and which ones you should still look on as outlanders. The social tent had to expand manyfold.

At this point culture kicked in with a vengeance, and the third level of altruism was born. Recognition based on cultural identity was superimposed on the older form of recognition based on “knowing” everybody else personally. If the other fellow spoke the same way, dressed the same way, and worshipped the same gods, you could accept him as a member of your extended in-group even if you’d never seen him before. You could afford to be altruistic toward him, less perhaps than with someone you already knew, but a lot more than would be advisable toward a complete outsider. Thus the culturally defined group was born, and soon it took on a life of its own, developing its internal coherence and its strength and its capability to compete with other such groups for territory and resources.

The rest, as they say, is history: the continuing conflict between third-level societies, leading to ever larger and more cohesive social units; the emergence of the nation state (the fourth level of altruism); and the final emergence, just now beginning, of the recognition by all humans of their essential one-ness (the fifth level).

The transition to the third level that took off and began to accelerate at the dawn of the Neolithic was as profound in terms of human thought and social organization as the earlier transition from erectus to sapiens was in terms of our biological evolution. For the first time, humans became something quite distinct from other life forms. Our talent for cultural evolution, which proceeded at many times the rate of earlier biological evolution, endowed us with the capacity (which we are still only slowly realizing) to act as managers of the biosphere, rather than as simply another species of mammal competing for survival within it.

No other living creature that ever existed on our planet has gone through a comparable transition. Other creatures have evolved ways of using tools, using vocal symbols, and developing complicated social hierarchies, but none of them has ever put it all together the way our ancestors did. We are, and remain, unique on this planet; we are almost certainly unique in this solar system; and it is quite possible that we are unique in this galaxy.

It is in this sense that thoughtful modern people can justify the idea that humans are unique and endowed with special responsibilites. We don’t need to postulate a divine creator to justify our being here. We provided our own justification, or at least our ancestors did, about 10,000 years ago, give or take a few millennia. This perception by itself is all we need as a starting point, to define a fresh corpus of philosophy that explains the nature of humankind, defines human and animal rights, and provides the basis for a modern moral and ethical code of behavior applicable to people everywhere.

I shall postpone discussion of moral and ethical codes, including the concept of universal human rights, until later. Let me close here with a brief attempt to address the age-old conundrum of purpose (also known as “the meaning of life”).

We do not now know, and probably never will know, where humanity as a whole is headed in the very long term future. But the road ahead of us is clear enough for the shorter term to provide guidance. And the guidance we get from a modern, informed, rational look at the road ahead is almost certainly going to prove better than the so-called “spiritual” guidance that the purveyors of the old religions are trying to foist upon us.

The guidance we can infer for the road ahead almost certainly involves consolidation of that fifth level of altruism. This implies that the purpose of humanity for the next several generations is to defang the old cultural animosities and rivalries and establish some new and overarching architecture of principles and institutions that abolish war, restore the planetary support system, and create a global society in which every individual has the opportunity to develop his or her talents.

The devil is in the details, of course. But it helps if we know where we are headed.

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