I’d like to try now to trace animal altruism into the more elevated realm of human morality. It’ll be an oversimplification, and most of these thoughts were stimulated or gleaned from the books I’ve read. But the question at hand remains: from whence, morality?
As I have argued, the simple calculus of kinship altruism and the prisoner’s dilemma works in the wild, where genetic code drives instinctive behavior. Food and resources, and sex of course, are typical currency in such games. The payoff is in procreation.
Tit for tat, as I’ve explained, is a successful strategy which one can easily imagine as reflexive. It requires recognition of individuals, the ability and willingness to return a favor and also to hold a grudge – not all the time, but often enough to matter. It’s also useful if you occasionally express forgiveness, to break from a bad cycle with an erstwhile friend. Humans are well suited for all of these functions – we have an uncanny ability to recognize faces, we have a decent memory, and a range of emotions. We can take good advantage of the standard Dilemma. We are experts, you might say, at tit for tat.
But with humans it goes much farther than that. In The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of Self, Thomas Metzinger explains how the newly-discovered mirror neurons (only found in humans and apes) constitute a hard-wired sort of empathy. Therefore, he suggests, we are neurologically interconnected not only for motor control (a mother opens her own mouth while spoonfeeding her baby), but for emotions tool.
Matt Ridley, in The Rational Optimist, points out another interesting fact: of all the animals we know, humans alone have learned to barter. I’m convinced that this is so important that I’m going to write it again. No animals but humans will trade one thing for another. Some will exchange favors in kind such as grooming, and symbiotic relationships even occur between species. But none except humans are able to exchange a handful of grapes for a handful of peanuts. This feat requires comparative valuation of different objects (a sort of mental currency), and it means considering that currency more important than the item itself. An ape would have to think those grapes are worth more to me than this banana, and I’ll give up the banana for something of more value. Very quickly, this kind of exchange leads to specialization because some people do some things better than others.
First it’s goods and services that change hands: arrow heads for a beaver pelt, rabbits for sex. Information is traded too, so learning itself becomes a commodity. In fact information is so inexpensive to share, and so valuable, that it is the perfect way to forge a mutual and co-operative relationship. So, barter stimulates intellectual development and promotes community cohesion. Simply make that mental currency physical, and more complex trade becomes possible over longer distances and also across time. Share my grain now and I’ll buy a rabbit from ... him, over there ... later. With real tender the opportunities -- and the benefits -- are magnified.
What I’ve just described is a process of economic and intellectual development. You may wonder how this is related to altruism and morality.
When money changes hands today the proprietor and the customer each thanks the other. This is because, from their individual perspectives, each one has come out ahead. To X the bananas are worth more than a dollar, and to Y the dollar is worth more than the bananas. The gain can be quantified; it’s the sum of the absolute differences between each player’s mental valuation of the banana, and the dollar itself. Since they both came out ahead, it’s always a positive sum. Simply put, each just did the other a favor. This is, of course, a foundational principle in microeconomics and one of the strongest arguments for capitalism.
That’s Good it itself, all that generated gain, and by a stretch it might even be called moral. After all, Y helped X feed his family and X helped Y feed his. But human goodness goes deeper than just the value added in a market exchange, because once you begin to rely on others it’s also in your interest to protect them. In other words being nice to your associates in general, pays off.
But are there genes for this, we might ask; can we attribute this sort of niceness to evolutionary forces? There is no single allele labeled naughty-or-nice, no. But certain combinations can make creatures smarter, more accepting of change, more socially connected, or better at doing some things, and more empathic. Better eyesight, more imaginative thinking, fortitude, focus – these things, and much more, affect the skill and style of interaction.
But more important than genes, the concepts contributing to specialization and trade (eg., knowledge, inventions, techniques, currency, markets, storage, transportation) also spread. Information is something like genes, something like viruses, spreading amongst the fertile minds of humans. Richard Dawkins called these concepts “memes” and they are subjected to natural selection. Good Ideas -- like cooperation, specialization, and trade -- spread, survive, and prosper. Our minds are like a petri dish in this regard.
I’m making a claim for evolutionary morality; but not for an evolutionary imperative of any kind. There is no magical motor driving us toward Goodness; bad behavior is always an option. Look back on the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, where tit-for-tat did well. In a realistic twist, where the players sometimes misread cues and mistook aid for defection, those who threw in random forgiveness did even better because they broke the unnecessary cycles (with other tits for tat) of mutual defection. But those “randomly-forgiving” players were nearly done in by the “nice-guys” who always helped everyone, no matter what. When their numbers grew, the nice guys were in turn overrun by “cheats”: their evil twins, who always defected. The four populations, in this interesting computer-based experiment, went around and around, with no stable state.
So there will always be cheats: criminals, liars, thieves, and hoarders ... lurking and plying the system for weakness. Genes deliver these sorts to the natural world. For example, studies have shown that nearly half of baby birds were sired by a male other than the blithely doting parent. That’s adultery, my friends – and lots of it.
Surely there are genetic differences between human populations too, but there is so much flexibility built into us that our genetic influences are overwhelmed by those of memes. The “criminal mind,” in other words, is biologically sound (usually). It’s the criminal’s mindset that’s the big problem. When thieves convince a peer of the merits of thievery, you have another thief. If he’s successful, there'll be more theft, more bad advice, and hence more thieves. Badness can pay off. Bad ideas can be salient too.
We’ve already seen why the defectors don’t take over with computer simulations, but why don’t they surge in real life?
One reason is social stigma. Within small groups (150 or less, I’ve read), the social cost of being a jerk can be enough to dissuade people from being one. Because everyone knows everyone each has a reputation to protect. But in large crowds, in secret, or when one chooses to live outside the constructive social fabric (and prey on it) you need police, law enforcement, military, a legal system, and formalized punishment for wrongdoing. In other words you need a government. And most people – the “tits for tats,” the “randomly forgiving” and the “nice guys” -- will want one.
Some governments are better than others encouraging moral behavior, and for that matter, behaving well themselves. Monarchies, for example are notoriously capricious and often harsh on their people. The ruthless sometimes rise to power, and sometimes power corrupts, and after an exhaustive analysis in his 2011 book (The Better Angels of our Nature), Steve Pinker argues that the best form of government is democracy. It not only allows for decisionmaking by the populous, there is generally a useful system of checks and balances. Autocrats, who may or may not care about their people, are not so restricted, and can almost be as careless as they please.
If democracy is the best system, is it a fragile one that is easily overrun? It doesn't seem that way. The graph I've scanned here, from the Pinker book I mentioned, suggests that on the contrary, it appears to be infectious. Pinker explains, with another economic principle. When people are dispersed and isolated from one another, perhaps living in rural settings, no individual or even small group would dare promote a democratic system. The ruler and his henchman, Pinker explains (referencing econmist Edward Glaeser), have great incentive to stay in power but the rebel "would assume all the risks of the dictator's reprisal, while the benefits of democracy would flow diffusely to everone in the country." This is called the free rider principle. But in the "crucible of cities," the theory continues, powerful coilitions can form among financiers, lawyers, writers, publishers, and well connected merchants, "dividing the labor and diffusing the risk."
If pubs and parlors can foment democratic revolution, think what the internet and cell phones can do.
If this line of reasoning is correct, then Goodness (morality) springs up from within, as a biological advantage, then by way of commerce and democracy it is forged into our social systems, and enforced. It's hardly a linear process and there is badness too, always. But the trajectory suggests that people are, by nature, by and large, pretty good after all.