Sunday, June 24, 2012

Gene Genie

In a widely read New Yorker article, Ezra Klein tries to explain how Republicans could oppose the individual mandate in the health care bill.  I didn't find the piece too illuminating, but one part intrigued me--Klein quotes NYU psychology professor Jonathan Haidt to back up his argument.

Haidt [...] argues in a new book, “The Righteous Mind,” that to understand human beings, and their politics, you need to understand that we are descended from ancestors who would not have survived if they hadn’t been very good at belonging to groups. He writes that “our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interests, in competition with other groups. We are not saints, but we are sometimes good team players.”

Haidt is a backer of group selection.  A lot of people like the idea of group selection--that animals, including us, have genes telling them to make sacrifices for the good of their group.  It's such a pleasant idea that even a fair number of scientists believe it.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be true, as Steven Pinker notes in a recent essay.  Evolution can be seen as genes competing for limited space, and a self-sacrificing gene would be ruthlessly selected against; it's up to those who support true altruism--helping others at your own expense--to show how it would work, and they don't seem to have the evidence.

No one doubts that animals are willing to help their own kin--that makes sense for genes fighting to remain in the pool. (I'm using the language of agency for genes, but everyone understands it's merely a useful shorthand.) And there are special situations, often seen in the insect world--but given as examples by people like Haidt--where all share the same genes, and unconditional sacrifice from sterile individuals to protect the queen or the hive increases their own fitness.

There's also an understandable tendency toward cooperation--if you cooperate with someone who cooperates with you, you're both benefitted.  In other words, your cooperation increases your own success (and when it doesn't you stop cooperating).

So with built-in altruism toward kin (seen everywhere in nature, but also in studies of human society), and a potential for cooperation, it's no surprise that some humans can be convinced to move toward a purer altruism--to help (or believe they're helping) non-relatives in some particular group, or humanity in general, or even other animals, at a sacrifice to themselves. This hardly means, though, we're genetically programmed to promote the good of the group.  Bees, wasps and ants automatically make these sacrifices, while what we've got is a capacity for abstract thought that allows us to believe under the right circumstances that we should make sacrifices.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Klein's tribe seems to think we're selecting against that last trait. I can't find it now, but for several days RealClearPolitics has had a link to a story, "Retiring Dem thinks people are becoming less intelligent."

4:47 AM, June 24, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes because science is ultimately about the current forgettable partisan political stances of the day

6:12 AM, June 24, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose you support a Tobin Tax to stop global warming. The science is doubtless settled.

11:48 AM, June 24, 2012  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Ezra Klein is the founder of "journolist," the private blog for liberal journalists to compare notes and make sure they were all on the same page on various topics in their various media outlets.

Is it any surprise then that he ascribes to the theory that a few intellectual leaders (like him) set the parameters for debate to which others (genetically inclined to be sheep) gravitate.

1:35 PM, June 24, 2012  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Denver Guy: I've written before about how people always claim the other side is stupid, mindless, dishonest, angry, whatever, but simply can't see it on their side. That's why so many articles claiming to uncover what the other side is really like tend tend to be worthless, or close to it.

Of course, the point of this post is more technical. I don't doubt there are psychological effects that make people want to be part of a group, but people like Haidt take it to far when they claim they've shown a genetic basis for group selection.

5:05 PM, June 24, 2012  

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