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Researchers Trace Origin Of An "altruism Gene"

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The Owl
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I think the biggest problem I've got with this article is that nowhere does/do the author(s) define exactly what they mean by the term "altruism." They seem to be saying it means cooperation and even deferred gratification, as well as being some sort of charitable impulse. In any event, I'd like to see what someone with a life sciences background can make of this. I'm candidly puzzled.

Taking one for the team

Volvox cells have a division of labor. All but 16 permanently renounce reproducing themselves to take on other jobs, such as moving the group around by swimming. A similar division occurs in most multi-cellular creatures: their cells are either “germ” cells—reproducers such as sperm and eggs—or “somatic” cells, all the others, which leave no heirs after the individual dies.

This can be seen as a profound form of altruism. By not reproducing, somatic cells commit evolutionary suicide to benefit the group. Something similar also occurs in insect colonies, which often have sterile “worker” castes.

In Volvox, biologists have previously found that a gene called RegA causes this “reproductive altruism.” RegA suppresses cell growth. Because a cell must grow a certain amount to reproduce, RegA also ends its reproductive career. Both germ and somatic cells have the gene, but in germ cells it’s inactive.

Continued

And talk about leaping to conclusions!

In evolutionary terms, Nedelcu said, there may be no fundamental difference between altruism in Volvox and the generosity that inspires people to give, say, to charity. Both might ultimately stem from similar mechanisms.

“I do believe that the same principle applies,” she wrote in an email. Any gene that allows someone to delay gratification for future benefits, she speculated, might be co-opted by evolution to shift those benefits to others instead.

Were I the sort who felt compelled to give to charity, I'd be insulted that my behavior is at base the same as "a primitive multi-cellular creature." :lol:

Patrick

(Note that the bold emphasis in both quotes is mine.)

Edited by The Owl
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Indeed, after reading the article, the conclusion is indeed pulled out really hard to make it into an altruism without defining it either.

Although they do state that more research is needed before making a conclusion, it seems like they didn't take into account similar gene effects that cells use to survive in hard times.

C. reinhardtii, like plants, conducts photosynthesis: it uses light energy to build sugars needed to live. In darkness, the researchers found, Crsc13 goes into action. Since photosynthesis can't occur in the dark, the gene blocks the assembly of chloroplasts, tiny compartments where photosynthesis occurs.
Furthermore, they didn't address the issue that the entity under study was on the border line between single-cell and multi-cell structure. This is important as those cells might be specialized/controlled by others to perform its duty. The article mentions for example, that organism can control its DNA by blocking genes with certain structures, essentially turned it off and on. This creates a possibility that other cells who acts as control center release some chemicals that would target those swimming cells' DNA to achieve such an effect.

Overall, the article is seriously biased towards finding the altruism, just take a look at the titles. And the finish is just perfect:

The Volvox finding is "exciting," said Gene Robinson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a specialist in the genetics of social behavior who wasn't involved in the research. "It overall demonstrates that comparative genomic analyses, done on the right sets of species, hold great promise" for charting the evolution of sociality.
Wasn't involved, but happily jumped on the bandwaggon? Sounds like they should get another team member who opposes this social view to balance the bias out.
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Indeed, after reading the article, the conclusion is indeed pulled out really hard to make it into an altruism without defining it either.
Within the context of the behavioral scienceis, altruism normally refers to any actions taken by a creature which diminish its reproductive fitness, while increasing that of another. A textbook example would be animals which cry out when a predator is near in order to warn their group, even though this may attract attention to themselves.

However the idea of an 'altruism gene' is very very silly, and I imagine that was the invention of the article writers rather than the scientists themselves. As far as I know, most people working in evolutionary theory have moved away from the simplistic idea that "one gene controls one aspect of behavior".

Edited by Hal
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  • 4 months later...

From the essay entitled "Objectivist Ethics" in The Virtue of Selfishness:

"On the physical level, the functions of all living organisms, from the simplest to the most complex -- from the nutritive function in the single cell of an amoeba to the blood circulation in the body of a man -- are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism's life."

The most successful and widely accepted paradigm within evolutionary theory has come about after Ayn Rand wrote that passage. When I say successful, I mean that this new theory gives a more complete explanation as to what was once a puzzling observation that flew in the face of the above passage: the presence of altruism in nature. Standard Darwinian theory assumed the same view stated by Rand. This view is expressed in the passage I cited. However, altruistic behavior does exist in nature seemingly violating the Darwinian view that the motor of evolution was the primary goals of individual life forms: survival and reproduction. Thus altruism remained an unexplained phenomena until theories like Richard Dawkins', which refined standard Darwinian evolutionary theory to show that organismal behavior is not solely directed towards preserving an example organism's own life, but that the example organism's genes are the fundamental goal-setters governing it. Organisms are a means by which genes ensure their own survival. Within this paradigm, altruism can be seen to exist as a mechanism which aids the survival of individual genes.

Some examples of altruism in nature -- from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological

"Altruistic behaviour is common throughout the animal kingdom, particularly in species with complex social structures. For example, vampire bats regularly regurgitate blood and donate it to other members of their group who have failed to feed that night, ensuring they do not starve. In numerous bird species, a breeding pair receives help in raising its young from other ‘helper’ birds, who protect the nest from predators and help to feed the fledglings. Vervet monkeys give alarm calls to warn fellow monkeys of the presence of predators, even though in doing so they attract attention to themselves, increasing their personal chance of being attacked. In social insect colonies (ants, wasps, bees and termites), sterile workers devote their whole lives to caring for the queen, constructing and protecting the nest, foraging for food, and tending the larvae. Such behaviour is maximally altruistic: sterile workers obviously do not leave any offspring of their own -- so have personal fitness of zero -- but their actions greatly assist the reproductive efforts of the queen.

From a Darwinian viewpoint, the existence of altruism in nature is at first sight puzzling, as Darwin himself realized. Natural selection leads us to expect animals to behave in ways that increase their own chances of survival and reproduction, not those of others. But by behaving altruistically an animal reduces its own fitness, so should be at a selective disadvantage vis-à-vis one which behaves selfishly. To see this, imagine that some members of a group of Vervet monkeys give alarm calls when they see predators, but others do not. Other things being equal, the latter will have an advantage. By selfishly refusing to give an alarm call, a monkey can reduce the chance that it will itself be attacked, while at the same time benefiting from the alarm calls of others. So we should expect natural selection to favour those monkeys that do not give alarm calls over those that do. But this raises an immediate puzzle. How did the alarm-calling behaviour evolve in the first place, and why has it not been eliminated by natural selection? How can the existence of altruism be reconciled with basic Darwinian principles?"

Dawkins explains altruism in nature by viewing nature through the "eyes" of a gene (in his book The Selfish Gene). In his view, the survival and replication of genes is the fundamental goal of an organisms life.

How does Objectivism explain altruism in nature?

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Ayn Rand never claims that animals are selfish – the issue of egoism versus altruism only applies to volitional beings. So-called “biological altruism” is not an ethical principle, but an observation of an animal’s means of survival, since non-volitional beings can’t have ethics.

Objectivism also does not prescribe a priori the nature of an organism’s life. “Life” for a male praying mantis or black widow spider may mean sacrificing itself for its mate – because that is a requirement set by reality for the survival of that species, kin, or gene pool.

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Ayn Rand never claims that animals are selfish – the issue of egoism versus altruism only applies to volitional beings. So-called “biological altruism” is not an ethical principle, but an observation of an animal’s means of survival, since non-volitional beings can’t have ethics.

Objectivism also does not prescribe a priori the nature of an organism’s life. “Life” for a male praying mantis or black widow spider may mean sacrificing itself for its mate – because that is a requirement set by reality for the survival of that species, kin, or gene pool.

I take your point, Greedy, however the observation of altruism in nature suggests that the ultimate value of life, the ultimate value being life's final goal (as defined by Rand), is not the "maintenance of the organism's life." The ultimate value would seem to be the propagation of the organism's genes. Ergo, life displays altruistic behavior that furthers this goal.

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Considering the "selfish gene" paradigm, the old, dual Darwinian goals of life, survival & reproduction, resolve into one more explanatory goal of life: the survival of genes. Under this paradigm, a parent's care for a child can be viewed as an altruistic act that furthers the goal of propagating the parent's genes. We would not be here to debate this issue if it weren't for former acts of human altruism -- the genes shared by members of our species would have failed to reach their goal.

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Values, including ultimate values, are determined by valuers, not by nature.

OK, then on the basis of the best scientific theory of evolution we possess, why should we adopt a view towards human life's ultimate goal as being self-preservation? Objectivist ethics was created as a scientifically based system of ethics.

Rand asserts that the ultimate value of all life (human included) is self-preservation. This was based on the prevailing scientific explanation at the time. However, the system of science has replaced this theory.

*Emphasized "human"

Edited by Everett Lamplighter
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Also, are scientifically derived ethical systems by virtue of their base views, inherently possessive of at least the potential to evolve? Science is an evolutionary epistemology -- it grows into better explanations of reality by the rules on which it is based. So how can an ethical system based on science be hoped to remain static?

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Currently, to the end that a scientific ethical theory is indeed scientific.

I would never have guessed that this was your goal given what you have written so far since such a general premise was not questioned. Rather, it appeared you were querying more specifically why one should choose selfishness over altruism (which would more typically imply that one was seeking knowledge about how one should live their life and why one thought this particular philosophy did not answer that question.) So if I understand correctly, you are just using Objectivism as an example to your above quoted end, and you aren't really concerned with "how should I live my life?" Correct me if I'm wrong.

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I would never have guessed that this was your goal given what you have written so far since such a general premise was not questioned. Rather, it appeared you were querying more specifically why one should choose selfishness over altruism (which would more typically imply that one was seeking knowledge about how one should live their life and why one thought this particular philosophy did not answer that question.) So if I understand correctly, you are just using Objectivism as an example to your above quoted end, and you aren't really concerned with "how should I live my life?" Correct me if I'm wrong.

I'm interested in basing an ethical theory on science. I like much of what Objectivism has come up with, but this issue raises questions for me re. Objectivist ethics.

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I found this selection interesting from the link you gave. bold are mine.

The theories of kin selection and reciprocal altruism together go a long way towards reconciling the existence of altruism in nature with Darwinian principles. Indeed kin selection theory, in particular, is generally regarded as one of the triumphs of 20th century evolutionary biology. However, some people have felt these theories in a way devalue altruism, and that the behaviours they explain are not ‘really’ altruistic. The grounds for this view are easy to see. Ordinarily we think of altruistic actions as disinterested, done with the interests of the recipient, rather than our own interests, in mind. But kin selection theory explains altruistic behaviour as a clever strategy devised by selfish genes as a way of increasing their representation in the gene-pool, at the expense of other genes. Surely this means that the behaviours in question are only ‘apparently’ altruistic, for they are ultimately the result of genic self-interest? Reciprocal altruism theory also seems to ‘take the altruism out of altruism’. Behaving nicely to someone in order to procure return benefits from them in the future seems in a way the antithesis of ‘real’ altruism -- it is just delayed self-interest.

This is a tempting line of argument. Indeed Trivers (1971) and, arguably, Dawkins (1976) were themselves tempted by it. But it should not convince. The key point to remember is that biological altruism cannot be equated with altruism in the everyday vernacular sense. Biological altruism is defined in terms of fitness consequences, not motivating intentions. If by ‘real’ altruism we mean altruism done with the conscious intention to help, then the vast majority of living creatures are not capable of ‘real’ altruism nor therefore of ‘real’ selfishness either. Ants and termites, for example, presumably do not have conscious intentions, hence their behaviour cannot be done with the intention of promoting their own self-interest, nor the interests of others. Thus the assertion that the evolutionary theories reviewed above show that the altruism in nature is only apparent makes little sense. The contrast between ‘real’ altruism and merely apparent altruism simply does not apply to most animal species.

I suspect that we have a terminology problem. The way this article defines altruism, and the way Objectivists do, is different. Para 1 from this section would be the way I would approach it, as only apparent altruism. Para 2 sets up a straw man argument. Objecitivsts define altruism with the same sort of calculus as a "fitness consequence". One should not sacrifice something of higher value for something of lower value. However, this does not in any way imply that cooperation among men is altruism, but as long as it meets the "fitness consequence" of giving lower value for higher, cooperation is perfectly acceptable. HOwever, it is not altruism in the objectivist sense.

Charity is ethically ok, when it is out of "surplus", i.e. when it poses little risk of having fitness consequences for yourself. Another way of stating this is that seemingly "altruistic" behaviors arise when there is no selective pressure to change them.

I dont' in any way mean to imply that we should recast Objectivist ethics in terms of evolutionary theory. I just think your initial claim of "altruism in nature" uses a definition that is not how an Objectivist would define it.

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Also, are scientifically derived ethical systems by virtue of their base views, inherently possessive of at least the potential to evolve? Science is an evolutionary epistemology -- it grows into better explanations of reality by the rules on which it is based. So how can an ethical system based on science be hoped to remain static?

I'm not sure what "science is an evolutionary epistemology" means. In general I would agree with your statement; however, to the extent that a previous conclusion is indeed conforming to reality, it cannot "evolve". I.e. new knowledge does not overturn truth; it refines it for new or added contexts. Most "overturned" errors of science are conclusions that extended beyond the context of the evidence. "The earth is flat" is a true statement as long as you keep it to the context, "over the 10 acre parcel I just measured".

If you buy a lot of what Objectivism has to say, then even new knowledge isn't going to suddenly make altruism (ethically speaking) suddenly viable. It might refine the concept of rational self interest, not overturn it. Even "the selfish gene" doesn't overturn Darwinism.

Edited by KendallJ
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I found this selection interesting from the link you gave. bold are mine.

I suspect that we have a terminology problem. The way this article defines altruism, and the way Objectivists do, is different.

Yes, I agree with you, Kendall, on this point. The distinction is clear. I don't think I'm confusing biological altruism (which is "mechanical", for lack of a better word -- devoid of conscious intention) with the context in which Objectivism speaks of altruism (which is within the sphere of conscious human action).

My question is: if biological altruism seems to imply and is explained by a gene-centric view of evolution, then can/should the mechanism by which life sustains and strengthens itself, as it is understood within a gene-centric evolutionary framework, be incorporated into an ethical system? To me, it seems that omitting this understanding of life from an ethical system, is (bluntly) anti-nature.

Of course, this opens up a whole new can of worms for me but I'm almost out of time to go any further with this tonight. However, I want to say that I am very much enjoying this conversation and I am grateful to be able to discuss such issues with the bright people whose thoughts I've had the pleasure to read on these forums. Rationalbiker, I apologize for issuing that no doubt seemingly glib & snarky response to your previous question. That wasn't becoming of the way I'd like to comport myself here.

And I'll reiterate that I'm not approaching these forums with an anti-Objectivism bent. I'm open-minded -- not an acolyte, nor an apostate -- I'm reconnoitering the philosophical landscape, looking for a good place to set up camp.

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My question is: if biological altruism seems to imply and is explained by a gene-centric view of evolution, then can/should the mechanism by which life sustains and strengthens itself, as it is understood within a gene-centric evolutionary framework, be incorporated into an ethical system? To me, it seems that omitting this understanding of life from an ethical system, is (bluntly) anti-nature.

Everett, great question. Let me ask this in return. What makes you think that philosophy (in my case Objectivism) hasn't already incorporated such understanding into its ethics? i.e. what refinements are needed based upon this new understanding that are not there now? I agree with you if this in someway affects metaphysics, and hence ethics, then we shoudl think about it. It's unclear to me that it's not already well represented.

The one problem I have is with the sort of metaphor used when discussing this. Does my entity actually seek to preserve my genetic code? or does preserving myself actually result in preserving my genetic code? When would preserving myself be in contradiction to preservation of my genetic code?

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The one problem I have is with the sort of metaphor used when discussing this. Does my entity actually seek to preserve my genetic code? or does preserving myself actually result in preserving my genetic code? When would preserving myself be in contradiction to preservation of my genetic code?

These are excellent questions as well. For the first, as far as intentionality goes, a person who's adoptive of an evolutionary view of life could, with well-defined intentions, seek to preserve their genetic code, i.e. they could consciously choose to sustain themselves and reproduce for the purpose of preserving their genetic code, i.e. this could be the basis of their personal ethics.

For the second, preserving yourself does result in the preservation of your genetic code to a point. The timeline of all organisms, should they survive all else, is eventually terminated as a result of senescence.

So to your third question, I'd say that self-preservation would contradict the preservation of your genetic code if no additional action was taken to reproduce your genetic code (at least some of it via traditional reproduction or maybe all of it via cloning :huh:) and you knowingly succumbed to organismal senescence without attempting at least to preserve the survival of your genetic code past the survival of yourself. I'm not saying that this is necessarily ethically true, but it would be true to an individual possessed of the above mentioned ethical values.

Should reproduction at least, if not some level of altruism amongst highly genetically similiar people (e.g. immediate family members), be incorporated? Is it already there in Objectivism and I'm just missing it?

It seems that it would be ethically permissible in an Objectivist system for the entire human race to decide not to reproduce. Is this the case? While the probability of something like this happening is extremely low, it would ultimately result in the death of humanity and the death of all ethical systems.

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So to your third question, I'd say that self-preservation would contradict the preservation of your genetic code if no additional action was taken to reproduce your genetic code (at least some of it via traditional reproduction or maybe all of it via cloning :huh: ) and you knowingly succumbed to organismal senescence without attempting at least to preserve the survival of your genetic code past the survival of yourself. I'm not saying that this is necessarily ethically true, but it would be true to an individual possessed of the above mentioned ethical values.

hmmm. this would tantamount to asking where the "go forth and multiply" edict is in objectivism. Certainly if Objectivism eschews family for any reason (cannot find a rational place for it as a value or goal) then you could have a problem.

However, I'm not so sure this is necessarily so. Rand did not have children but one could say that her articulation has helped many understand how to survive better by more effacacious use of their rational faculty, and as such will allow them to selectively survive based upon the proper use of that faculty. Yes, Rand's genes weren't preserved in the action but as long as the philosophy she left behind values childrearing as a possible rational endeavor, it may not matter. This was certainly not altruism on her part.

Interesting thought.

Edited by KendallJ
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It seems that it would be ethically permissible in an Objectivist system for the entire human race to decide not to reproduce. Is this the case? While the probability of something like this happening is extremely low, it would ultimately result in the death of humanity and the death of all ethical systems.

Ethics aren't evaluated in aggregate so asking what is ethically permissible for the entire race is a non sequitir. The question is does the philosophy eschew family as a value, as such. I.e. does the philosophy specifically (or maybe even culturally) steer people away from childrearing. I think the answer is no. In that case wether any one member of the group chooses to rear a child may not be relevant, as long as enough do.

This is the big claim among republicans right now. That Democrats have a higher percentage of single, childless people and as a result will select themselves out of existence. A result of the women's lib and gay movements?

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