Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Think like an Economist

My BiL  linked a really neat talk about how incentives matter (or don't) that had a neat animation to go with it. I'm not going to link it, because I'm mean like that. I'm not even going to link what I clicked on after that, which is an animation of another talk by Dan Levitt. Instead, I want to share the full version of the talk. It's a talk that's been in social psychology and economics circles for ages: is there such a thing as altruism?

Originally, my training is as a behavioural ecologist. Not as a geneticist, or population ecologist, or whatever. I studied behaviour. From a biological standpoint, altruism doesn't make much sense. Give away what you've worked to earn? If there's a gene for that behaviour, that gene will quickly go away as sure as a gene that results in an animal that tears holes in its side. In fact, for a long time, altruism was raised as an issue against evolution. Well, some very clever solutions show that you can have altruistic like behaviour, where you help your relatives (who have a copy of a gene for helping relatives), thereby increasing your own gene's fitness. An alternative solution, no less clever involves "I help you today, but you help me tomorrow." We call that reciprocal altruism. There's a number of other solutions to apparent altruism, where the giver is really getting something in return.

There's the rub. Is it possible to envision a situation where someone gets absolutely nothing in return? Or their family? Even feeling good about giving something is a benefit (although then you need to explain why one feels good about it). I think there probably is true altruism, but it's a mistake. It's a behaviour that goes off in the wrong context - we express the 'care for family' behaviour towards a total stranger because it miss-fires. But just because it's evolutionarily a mistake doesn't make it bad. After all, some of my favourite body parts don't have any function at all in one gender or another (I'll keep this blog pg-13 by not listing them. ;) ). Mistakes and misfires can be beautiful, wonderful. But that's not to say the whole problem of altruism is foxier than you'd think.


Alaskan Dave Down Under said...

How's abouts using the sighuntiphick names for the body parts?

WV: snesyn. As in, "I been snesyn today from the pollen in the air."

TwoYaks said...

Basically, half of everything fun is has a probably functionless form in the other gender. Which isn't to say it isn't fun there, too. ;)

themadengineer said...

Ants. In an ant colony, a worker's fellow workers are all at least half-siblings to each other, and the workers themselves are all sterile. They must keep the queen going, or the entire colony will die. They also benefit from reenforcing each other.
They also benefit from occasionally producing a new queen, who will colonize another area, and drones, which will ensure that their genes exist in other colonies as well.
Ants have every reason to be altruistic. If they don't, their entire family dies off.

TwoYaks said...

We call what ants are doing "Kin Selection" in biologist-speak. Actually, what's interesting is there are some species of ants (or wasps) where members other than the queen can lay eggs, but the dominant female forcefully suppresses them either chemically, or through brute strength. So the individual wasp/ant's contribution is its only way of having fitness until it can kick the current queen's butt. :)