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Altruism, Aspergers and Neanderthals
The following was inspired by a consideration of a report of an experiment into altruism in the Scientific American. I would not contend that altruism is exclusive to Neanderthals but I would suggest that nit was at a higher level in Neanderthals than in Erectus. I would contend that high level Altruism at then hardwired or genetic level is also found in other species as well. Humankind is not as some would contend unique in displaying this form of behaviour. To do so is to deny the internonnections between the living beings on this planet.
Putting ones self in at risk and in danger in order to shield or rescue another from danger or injustice may be called Altruism In the rest of the animal and marine world there are examples of altruism where individuals will put themselves at risk on behalf of others. There are even examples where members of one species will put themselves at risk even to "save" a member of another species. Dogs have put themselves at risk to save strangers most notably human children who are not even members of their masterís family. Humans have often done the same for defenceless animals. There are many examples of altruism in many species of birds including the raven or crow which have demonstrated a high degree of social responsibility even bats will donate their food to less successful colleagues.
For some reason researchers have been intrigued and puzzled by altruism. I speculate that many NonA humans have a hardwired desire to regard humans as unique. In reality I would propose that altruism is not exclusive to any species and it is not discrete but is a continuum. I would suggest that only humans would have the capacity to or wish to manipulate altruism.
Recently the Scientific American Vol,14 No5 ran an article on the "Samaritan Paradox" by Fehr & Renninger at the University of Zuric. Their experiment in a field called "experimental economics" involved subjects using a computer simulated investment game, not surprising in the home of the financial Gnomes. This game included the ability to make an investment into an undefined "public good" utility. Rewards were distributed after each round regardless of the contributions to the public good. In a later round the participants were allowed to punish the selfish player but at a cost to themselves a surprising 80% paid to penalize the "offenders" In later versions freeloaders were less common where penalties could be imposed They concluded that it was due to both the penalty and social pressure.
I would suggest however that this exercise has flaws when attempting to apply it to what I would call "fundamental" altruism. The first is that "fundamental" altruism is selfless, it is virtually a reflex action, it may be ingrained in the hard wiring of the brain or it may be a random reaction to a particular action. Investment is an economic activity and the actions are initially premeditated the actions are focussed on economic gain and on insurance in case of loss. I note that in the experiment
As the Convener of Whistleblower Assist, Whistleblowers Help International and an office bearer in other similar organizations in Australia. My experience is that we have a very high proportion of members who are what I would call altruistic and not really concerned with money or economics especially as it applies to themselves. Indeed in their pursuit of justice and fairness they will often incur huge expense expenditure of massive amounts of time and energy over a number of years. All this frequently without the likelihood of financial rewards.This is what I would call reflective altruism in that the Altruist is at all times conscious of the dangers and of the penalties. They are most frequently David against Goliath battles and still they persist often purely for the public good.
I In Australia there are no economic rewards for whistleblowers and indeed when some have suggested financial rewards for whistleblowers here whilst they have been welcomed there have been replies to the effect such suggestions are to fail to understand the motivations of the majority of genuine whistleblowers
That this aspect is widespread is evidenced in the dramatization of a real case in the film "A Civil Matter" with John Trevolta which showed the extent to which an altruistic lawyer would go to seek justice. Another famous case was Erin Brokovic, here though there was a significant reward in the end that was not the motivation.
Fehr & Renninger point out that some evolutionary theorists argue that strong altruism is maladaptive. They suggest that it was OK when humans lived in isolated groups and were dependent on each other. "Those who acted unfairly would have been excluded from rewarding group activities or even punished". Well I would suggest that it would be more likely that in such a situation the females of the group would not be anxious to mate with such an individual.
I have proposed that Neanderthals living in what I have termed the "harsh" environment of the ice ages would have operated in small family and extended family groups for more than a hundred millennia. The Erectus in the "hostile" environment would have developed in a less rational behaviour manner as that had survival value when under threat from predators this together with their social propensity for tribal formation and agression would have enhanced their survival. Altruism may well have existed in such groups but is unlikely to have been as heavily successful as aggression.
Such evolutionary theorists would suggest that in todayís societies the high level of "outsiders" who can be freeloaders with success.
Fehr & Renniger suggest that "strong" altruism is actually a kind of habit. I am afraid that I cannot agree with such a proposition. Altruism might be taught and encouraged but fundamental altruism is something that is hardwired into some humans. In times of crisis and danger the best and the worst aspects of humanity tend to be displayed, it is my experience that the reactions are instinctive and not deliberative.
I would contend that the experiment could well have indicated an attitude to community responsibility rather than altruism.
Under the heading "The Rise of Altruism" they say that in looking for a genetic basis scientist "find themselves contradicting the selfish-gene theory. This theory is just that, a theory and an interesting one however whilst it has merit it is not a law. Further there are areas where it is being shown that there are other concepts such as whole of entity used by systems biologists which also can apply. Further Washington State University is looking at epigenetic effects from endocrine disruptors in the environment and their effects unto the third and fourth generation. Human behaviour and development is fortunately very variable a fact which increases our chances of survival.
Fehr and Renniger indicate an alternative theory of interaction of culture and genetics which is more acceptable however it relies on the proposition that the altruists will punish the egoists. I would suggest that basic altruists would be likely to look with disappointment on the egoists but are unlikely to punish. The admirable desire of the authors to seek to find and foster altruism in humans is in my opinion somewhat offset by the desire to see humans as different from, and unrelated to, the rest of our fellow inhabitants. When they seek the "exalted" and "godlike" position I would remind them of the Sword of Damocles and the ancient wisdom that says "Those whom the gods would cast down they must first exalt."
Mervyn K. Vogt
HUP Human Potential Development Centre
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