17 December 2009

Cooperation and generosity in evolution

One of my students emailed me asking what I thought of this article, “Social scientists build case for ‘survival of the kindest’” on the biology of human sympathy and kindness. I am not sure what they're going for here. Stuff in this article ranged from unsurprising to dubious to wrong.

Unsurprising: It’s been known for a long, long, long time that cooperation can be a winning strategy for evolutionary success. This stuff in the article doesn’t weigh against an hypothesis that selfishness at the genetic level provides evolutionary success, as far as I can see.

Dubious:

“The tendency to be more empathetic may be influenced by a single gene,” Rodrigues said.

The track record of people claiming to have found single genes to explain a complex social behavioural pattern in humans is lousy. I can’t think of one.

Wrong:

Keltner and his team are zeroing in on... the vagus nerve, a uniquely mammalian system...

Frogs have vagus nerves. The neurotransmitter acetylcholine was first called “vagustoff” because it was isolated from frog vagus nerves by Otto Loewi, for which he won the Nobel prize. And, just to be crystal clear... Frogs? Not mammals!

While this detail is just that – a detail – errors like that burn credibility.

“This new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion is finally catching up with Darwin’s observations nearly 130 years ago, that sympathy is our strongest instinct,” Keltner said.

None of the cases they talked about are clearly altruistic (at least, I couldn’t tell from what’s written in the article). Altruism is “I incur a cost that benefits you.” What is presented in the article seems to be either cooperation or mutualism (“I benefit and you also benefit”), or maybe generosity (“This costs me nothing and you benefit”). And by costs, I mean survival or reproductive costs, not someone making a six figure annual salary giving $5 to charity.

Cooperation is dead easy to explain through evolutionary theory. Generosity is not problematic, although you might expect it to be rare. Altruism is difficult for evolutionary theory to explain, which is why there are many papers in prominent journals about models and explanations for altruistic behaviour.

I’m sure much of the basic research underlying this article is fine and Interesting stuff, but this write-up has way too much of an “Everything scientists thought was all wrong!” vibe for my liking.

6 comments:

Kristen H. said...

Just curious but what do you think about the field of evolutionary psychology?

Zen said...

Kristen: That’s a tough one. It’s like asking, “What do you think of bread?”

“Um... What kind of bread?”

It may need a full blog post for me to explain. Which, being a blogger, I’m happy to do...

Whimsical Trovers said...

Unfortunately the Science Daily page is now mysteriously under construction, so I couldn't read the original article. But the excerpts sounded pretty fruitcake to me.

Zen said...

Trovers: Found it! It’s moved here:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091208155309.htm

Thanks for the heads up!

Zen said...

Whoops! The article hadn’t moved & ndash; I actually managed to stick in a stray space when pasting in the link. The one on the main article is fixed now.

Whimsical Trovers said...

Thanks! Okay, I've read it now, and I'll just say, I'm a historian, not a scientist, and it's still a fruitcake article any way you slice it. I found nothing about the "findings", such as they were, to be compelling support for their theory.

I'm learning a lot from your blog and your tweets. Thank you!