Saturday, January 03, 2009

How to Improve Ourselves

Many thinking people have come to believe that the solution of long-term social problems is hopeless. Trends, other than technological, are mostly grim. The crux of the failure is apparently that society is composed of all-too-human components. Systems, whether designed or emergent, to coordinate the activities of humans for the community welfare are flawed, full of loopholes that allow or even encourage individuals to undermine the group effort. The Tragedy of the Commons is a summary description of that discouraging viewpoint. The tragedy is that there's a little bit of free-rider in every one of us, the most well-meaning of us, each chiseling out a little more from the shared wealth than we ought to. Eventually the commons deteriorates into uselessness. The Invisible Hand, much admired though it be, appears to be, ultimately, a pickpocket.

More often than not, we watch impotently while public goods projects are starved and parasitized. Everyone laments these losses and rancorously blames the most blatant abusers, but we all partake of the looting, if only indirectly. Bridges fall, hospitals close, truants and old veterans roam the streets, not because we don't care, but because we don't feel compelled to pay our dues in full -- at least, not until Tuesday.

So, if no one, or at least too few, will do those things which are obviously needed, how can we ever solve collective problems? The problems themselves are much discussed and daunting … War, Warming, Want and Waste among them. The cures all require that everyone contribute and sacrifice, which, as we know, runs counter to human tendencies. There is always a Hitler to occupy the Rhineland, and always a Chamberlain to wring his hands over it. There is always a Patient Zero who heeds not the consequences. And always, the Band Plays On. We don't want to be in the Band, but somehow we are.

In fact, many problems are actually solved, which serves as a kind of evolutionary filter. When we actually solve a problem, the problems that remain are necessarily harder to deal with. The character of the remaining problem set is, by natural selection, more perfectly designed to remain just beyond our grasp and just beyond our understanding. As the pressure of population growth expands the importance of our remaining problems, the tools in our social toolkit begin to reach their point of diminishing returns. Capitalism, for instance has shown its power and flexibility far beyond what we could have expected a century ago, but its faults are intruding themselves more and more objectionably into thwarting our naïve attempts at staightforward progress. Ditto democracy. Alternatives, such as bureaucracy, co-ops and emergency rule, have been helpful within narrow domains and circumstances, but suffer from the same loss of sharpness due to overuse and misapplication. The changes we need have to be more global and flexible ... and transcendent as well.

God forbid that we focus on any more Utopian approaches, but there is no doubt that collective action is required, sacrifice is required, altruism is required. Unfortunately, everything we see and everything we have learned -- about economics and the natural world -- tells us that systems of cooperation must function on the basis of mutually beneficial payoffs. The inadequacies of such systems, the apparently irreducible negative externalities, have led us to question the possibility for any sizable mass of individuals to act outside of the short-term personal interests of each member. The collective problems are severe, apparently insurmountable, and the required modifications to the Mechanism do not seem to possible ... Despair hangs heavy on the land.

Yet, there are situations where we do see good things happening. Sacrifices do occur. Common purpose does motivate. ... We see people giving their kidneys to perfect strangers. Masses of volunteers spontaneously come to the aid of catastrophe victims. People help others on occasion for no rational reason. People even forgive their enemies from time to time. There are times when we can be proud of ourselves and even entertain hope.

Remarkably, it is known that even animals help each other. Cooperation in nature appears everywhere. Animals have been known to help members of other species. Pilot whales lead ships into harbor. Dolphins hold sailors up in the water. Individual dogs, certainly, have sacrificed their lives for humans without hesitation.

The unexpectedness of such generosity gives rise to what is known as the "Problem of Altruism", a designation that indicates the difficulty scientists have in explaining it. It cannot be denied. People obviously do good deeds. They sometimes do good deeds when no one is watching. And societies can actually reform and infrastructure can be maintained. Sometimes good things come out of bad. The fact that people do bad things to further their selfish goals does not negate the surprising prevalence of beneficence.

So, given what we think evolution is about, why has such folly not been eliminated by natural selection? The Problem of Altruism has been one of the most intractable conundrums in science ever since Darwin. If we start from the hypothesis that successful reproduction is the only metric that matters, then how can we explain what actually happens? Nature Red in Tooth and Claw is there, but not everywhere.

Theorists have, however, managed to explain some of these anomalies in the natural world. Sometimes there is a payoff that we can't see. The honeyguide leads people to the beehives not for human benefit, but to harvest the larvae and beeswax after the humans leave with the honey.

Sometimes the payoff is in plain sight, but you have to look at the genetic point of view. A male spider or Praying Mantis may sacrifice its body for the benefit of the female. The important recipient of that gift, however, is the next generation. These males are helping to feed their genetic offspring. Genes that induce this behavior might therefore propagate more quickly than those that don't. It depends, it seems, on the likely subsequent reproductive success of the prospective fathers. If they can expect to mate again, they will not be likely to engineer such a sacrifice, although the female might still find it attractive.

Honeybees, even more strangely, will not only sacrifice themselves for the defense of the hive, but also sacrifice their ability to reproduce. Although many cells do the same thing within our bodies, it is puzzling to us that an independent organism could evolve such a sacrifice. Once again, it turns out that the Selfish Gene explains the quirk. Just as we do whatever we can to help our children, honeybees do whatever they can to help the queen. They help the queen reproduce because they are closely related to the queen. Any specific gene of the worker, shared by the queen, is more likely to propagate itself through the collective effort than through independent individual effort. Any gene, therefore, that enhances the collective effort, whether at the expense of the individual or not, will reproduce more quickly and saturate the population of hives. That's the gist of it, anyway. The real situation is apparently a little more complex, but the logic applies broadly.

Among humans, the degree of relatedness is used to explain the extent of altruism. I'm not sure how well it works, though. Once again we are stymied by the fact that humans will help their brothers, but they will also help their cousins, their friends, and a wino down the street who will never, can never, return the favor.

Birds will do the same for each other. One of the favorite pastimes of small birds is to chase large birds. I have myself seen a group of arctic terns actually pecking the flesh of a large eagle while in flight. I have seen tiny birds attack a group of crows. Perhaps this is not as dangerous as it looks, but it certainly represents an opportunity cost. Wouldn't it be more profitable for a given bird to spend its time searching for food and letting the other guy do the community service? Mobbing, as this is called, was often explained in the past as providing a collective benefit. Somehow, the group gets rid of a predator and the group receives the benefit. Unfortunately, the concept of group evolution, in the sense that a group reproduces more quickly if members contribute to a shared benefit, has always attracted skepticism. How could shirker genes be excluded? Game theory would seem to vitiate such an explanation.

A more credible idea suggests that there is a "dilution" effect regarding the group action.
Schooling fish supposedly produce synchrony behavior in order to dilute the risk to any particular individual. A shark will be confused and will not be able to track a single individual if the individual does not break ranks. Bison males can keep the wolves at bay by presenting a united rank of horned heads, like a phalanx of Greek Hoplites. The more individuals who participate, the lower the risk to any of them. Individuals could be seen then as engaging in group activity only to lower their own risk.

Mobbing behavior, however, seems to refute that analysis. Why not hang back? Why no synchrony? I have even seen a lone bird "mobbing" a larger bird. There is no apparent benefit for a bird to count coup against the raptor enemy. Then why do they do it? Why do humans do it for that matter? Well, we do it for glory, for prestige, for the self-satisfaction, I suppose … for the political advantage, we might say. And such advantages pay off, among humans, whether we care to admit it or not, by increased wealth and, more importantly, access to superior breeding opportunities.

The Handicap Principle suggests that animals advertise their fitness to prospective mates through signals that are resistant to counterfeit. Size of a male, perhaps might indicate health. Bright colors, of a particular sort, might be proof of a strong metabolic system, capable of producing a large yield of expensive coloring agent, and it might also indicate the absence of negative factors such as parasites. Certain male baboons in colder climates have a bright patch of exposed skin on their chests. Blood circulation makes it bright. The larger and brighter the patch is, the more evidence it provides that the animal is resistant to cold weather. If he is strong, he can afford to waste massive amounts of thermal energy. Likewise, the female evolves to look for those certificates because her reproductive success depends ultimately on the fitness of, not just herself, but also her mate.

Inconveniently long tails or extravagant plumage indicate that a male bird is strong enough to grow it and carry it, and quick enough to evade predators despite the handicap. Mobbing, in this view, is pursued most fiercely by those who are most capable -- for the explicit purpose of showing off. It is an opportunity for demonstrating fitness. And by the way … it achieves a public good.

Perhaps it is this Handicap Principle that has driven people toward altruism. We show our fitness by sharing our surplus with others. By promoting those around us, we are probably promoting some of our own genes as well.

The Potlatch tradition among the Kwakiutl (the formal designations have apparently changed since my undergraduate days) Indians of the Pacific Northwest is one of the more extreme manifestations of this process. A family calls many guests together for a feast. Among the various celebrations associated with this tradition is a profligacy of gifting. The family, at least in the past, would spend itself into bankruptcy. (I've seen something close to this on the Main Line, but it involves more alcohol.) It seemed so wasteful to European eyes, that the custom was outlawed in Canada for many years. So why do they do this? The required answer from the standpoint of natural selection is this: they gain something of equivalent or greater worth than that which they give up.

So let's forgo the usual piety about harmony and spiritual blessings. A good family can give a righteous potlatch repeatedly. They know how to throw a good party and they know how to accumulate the necessary wealth. It’s an unfakeable signal of fitness. The fact is that, besides aiding the poor, the family with the best potlatch gets the most prestige. Prestige translates to numerous survival perks, but it also leads to, for the members of the honored families, superior mating opportunities.

But just how far will they push it? Well, logically there is a payoff matrix which characterizes the process. If they don't push it far enough, they lose prestige and are excluded from some of the better mating opportunities. If they push it too far, they have exhausted themselves for an inadequate genetic payoff. Natural selection will tend toward the optimal payoff, the point where their errors will fall symmetrically around the peak payoff point. That is, the people will be genetically and socially programmed to push their extravagance just far enough. But it's a competitive sport, of course. Each generation will have to push just a little farther in order to outshine their genetic competitors. (If you are offended by the notion of human genetic differences, please feel vindicated by the fact that interbreeding is quick to dilute such effects, and furthermore, culture is part of a person's selectable inheritance.)

[My personal genetic strategic avatar would be Freeloader. Get fat and happy and learn to attract mates through stealthier methods.]

Game theory has become a very interesting experimental science in recent years. I say, "experimental", because ideas can now be tested, much in the manner of climate modeling, by simulating well-defined strategies in a software environment of stripped-down logic. A recent article in Nature, a very important article in my relatively unschooled estimation, published under Letters on July 10 of this year, exemplifies the game theory simulation approach, dramatically explaining the evolution of cooperation within a spectrum of environmental parameters. I don't know whether the authors, Santos, Santos and Pacheco, are far out in front of this field, but they address the problem of altruism from the viewpoint of social networks in some very interesting ways.

They are looking at a version of the iterated N-person Prisoner's Dilemma called the Public Goods Game (PGG). Will people contribute to the general welfare when they can obtain the benefit anyway, and when they know that others might well pay for it? ... Apparently they will. If individuals fail to cooperate, they stand a risk of being "punished" by losing, first of all, their portion of the collective benefits associated with a given Public Good (and by foregoing the opportunity to reproduce within the structure of the simulation). The crucial insight in this study is this: When there are overlapping networks of such game-based interactions, where the networks have various realistic attributes of diversity and the individuals have diverse resources, in those cases, the evolution toward cooperative strategies is dramatically accelerated by the simple expedient of recognizing "good will". That is, by using a programmed punishment/reward strategy which evaluates any contribution of a competing individual as "cooperation", a community will evolve, within the model, to become more successful and will quickly exile defectors to the margins.

The implications for the study of altruism are extremely important. For one thing, it becomes apparent that a reasonably accurate depiction of social networks can lead to entrenched patterns of good behavior without any explanation based on the Handicap Principle or any clear genetic advantage. This idea is, at last, a believable explanation here for those “better angels” that we have always seen in our natures.

But we also have here a prescription for the cultivation of altruism. What do these experiments imply about public policy? If we need collective altruism to solve collective problems, how can we promote the desired behavior?

First, I think, we must fight local anonymity. We must encourage the development of richly joined overlapping social networks where people are known to one another and are generally expected to contribute, not necessarily a lot, but whatever they can reasonably afford. We need to encourage social structures where people have an identity, a reputation and a collective interest.

Does this prescription necessarily follow from the putative social richness of the model? I think so. It conforms to what I have always thought anyway, and it's easy for me to read confirmatory evidence into tangentially related material. I'm hoping for more research to support my agenda, of course. Meanwhile, Nature also has an article on group selection in the Darwin issue from November 20, 2008.

Interview with Amotz Zahavi

Honest Signaling Theory

Discussion of Tragedy of the Commons

Fairness among primates

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