Jump to content
Objectivism Online Forum

Altruism and pre-historic man

Rate this topic


softwareNerd
 Share

Recommended Posts

In her essay titled "Selfishness Without a Self" (in, Philosophy Who Needs It), Rand says this (somewhat in passing):

It is obvious why the morality of altruism is a tribal phenomenon. Prehistorical men were physically unable to survive without clinging to a tribe for leadership and protection against other tribes. The cause of altruism's perpetuation into civilized eras is not physical, but psycho-epistemological...
What exactly does the comment about prehistoric man mean? If one were to chew on this, in what myriad ways would prehistoric man be more physically dependent on others?
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Many studies report appreciable group conflict and cases of social extinction of local groups.

Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man:

A tribe including many members, who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes, and this would be natural selection.

Under those circumstances, single, prehistoric man would have even less chance of survival than a tribe. I think that was the source of the physical dependence mentioned which gave rise to the conflict between individualistic vs. pro-social motivations (with which many still struggle today).

Edited by ~Sophia~
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I recommend watching the movie Quest for Fire for a dramatization of life in a prehistoric tribe. I was very moved by the movie, for it portrays individualism within the context of a tribal structure. I suspect that as soon as man was capable of altering nature to suit his ends, i.e., as soon as he could fashion tools and harness fire, individualism began to rise in importance. The reason is simple. All achievements are the result of individual thought. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the tribal structure was essential to survival in an era like that. I would look at it as a built-in community with a division of labor. Some members of the tribe gathered roots, others hunted, some guarded the sacred fire, and all banded together for mutual self-defense and to hunt large game.

On a side note, I marvel at the first advances of primitive man, especially the harnessing of fire. It made man safe, gave him light so he could work at night and paint on the side of cave walls, made his food easier to eat and enabled him to preserve it by smoking it, protected him from wild animals, and kept him warm in winter. Essentially, all those functions are served today by man's modern fire, electricity.

Edited by Galileo Blogs
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Since in a hunter-gatherer society, a man's chance of survival greatly increases when belonging to a group, it made sense for altruism to develop as a value that benefits all who buys into it. What Rand said was that such sentimentalities are a relic of our past that has survived into the modern world, rather than an inherent and self-evident part of human nature.

Examples of a prehistoric man being more physically dependent on others would be in a hunt, where a group of men can take down larger preys more efficiently than a single man could by himself. Or when gathering, in which a group of men can acquire more essential foods and herbs in shorter amounts of time. Another scenario which probably occurred quite frequently would be if a man was hurt or sick, he could rely on the tribe to provide sustenance long enough for him to recover.

However a theory more inline with the modern theories of evolution would be that in a tribal setting, where all members are likely to be genetically related, a man is essentially ensuring the survival of his own genes, at least in part, by protecting others that are related to him by blood. I hope this somewhat answers your question.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

In her essay titled "Selfishness Without a Self" (in, Philosophy Who Needs It), Rand says this (somewhat in passing):What exactly does the comment about prehistoric man mean? If one were to chew on this, in what myriad ways would prehistoric man be more physically dependent on others?
It's a physical fact about man and the Earth that you simply cannot survive completely on your own. That is the fundamental physical fact that primitive man had to fact. Society, or no society -- trying to survive all by yourself. I don't think it was physically possible.
Link to comment
Share on other sites

However a theory more inline with the modern theories of evolution would be that in a tribal setting, where all members are likely to be genetically related, a man is essentially ensuring the survival of his own genes, at least in part, by protecting others that are related to him by blood. I hope this somewhat answers your question.

I completely agree with this..

Altruism only developed in early human species because of their tendency to live in small groups of high relation and low dispersal. What I mean by this is the following:

True altrusim CAN NOT evolve. I must first define altruism. Altrusim, functionally, can be described as the giving of resources that profits the reciever whilst at the same time causing no profit for the giver at the very least. The altruism could be said to be even stronger if the giver suffers a loss as a result of the giving.

The above, of course, now require that I give a definition for profit and loss. Profit and loss, in the context I have described above, can be defined as that which allows a gene to better lever itself into the next generation. It does this by having phenotypic expression in the world. This is usually achieved by building an organism around itself. Anything that the organism is or does that causes a profit to another organism (and by extension the genes that made it) could be described as altruistic. In the sense of altruism as I have described it, there is no such thing.

So, how is it that we see apparently altruistic acts in the world of humans. Well, to explain this we need to remember that a gene should not be seen as existing as a single copy inside the single organism it has made for itself. Rather it should be seen as existing in the form of all of its copies spread across many individuals. Any gene that evolves the the tenedency to cause its phenotype to act in such a way as to increase the profit of any other phenotype of a copy of itself, will tend to persist in a population since the reproductive success of the gene that is shared at the very least remains constant. Indeed, more than this, if the giver is a grandfather who has passed his reproductive best and the reciever is a grandchild who has yet to fulfil their reproductive potential, the net reproductive success of the "altruistic" gene that they share will actually increase as a function of the grandfather behaving in an "altrusitic" fashion to his grandchild.

So, to summarise so far, Altrusim in the pure sense cannot evolve in any organism. However, a form of behaviour that looks like altruism but is in fact the result of selfish genetic imperatives can evolve between related individuclas who have a very high liklihood of sharing that gene when compared to non-related individuals who are much lkess likly to share it. How then does this relate to altruism in prehistoric man.

Well, to go back to my original point. The anthropological evidence suggests that early man evolved under conditions of high relation and low dispersal. By low dispersal, I mean that individuals tended not to migrate very far from their tribal group, who were more or less related ot them. It is precisely these kind of conditions that are rerquired for "altruistic" behaviour to evolve.

Of course, in order to behave nicely to a related individual, one needs to be able to identify the fact that they are in fact related to you. In a species of low dispersal, this is easy and can be satisfied by a relatively simple behavioural rule. It might take something like the form:

Behave nicely to anyone who lives within a given radius of you

Alternatively

Behave nicely to anyone who you spent the majority of your time near from birth up to a critical age

Obviously, with a psecies of high dispersal, things are not quite so easy. In such cases the organism need to some kind of genotype matching with itself in order to establish the genetic releatedness of any individual it is considering giving resources to. In some animals this is done by phenotype matching. That is to say, giver makes an assessment of how much the potential reciever is similar to them. This can be done via any of the sense organs (e.g. smell, sight, sound). This thouhg is much more complicted to hard wire in as a behavioural routine and is probably why we see much less "altruistic" behaviour in species that have a tendany to disperse.

So, given that we now live in huge cities where the individuals that share our immediate environment are no more or less likely to be related to us than are the people who live a hundred miles away, why do we persist in seemingly altruistic behaviour to one another. The answer< I believe, is due to a genetic legacy left to us from our ancesters mentioned above. In other words, it does not, actually, make any genetis sense for us to be altruistic to each other in cities since we are not related. However, this tendancy evolved when it did make sense. We are simply living off the back of that genetic heritage. If we conduct a thought experiment and were to assume that the amount of altruitic behaviour we engaged in had a direct effect on our reproductive success, we would soon see the genes that cause us to behave in that way dissapear from the human population. Indeed, let me leave you with this thought. Modern cities with the complex social systems that are required for them to function effectively, would never havebeen possible had our ancesters evolved in a different way and so not had such a simple (and therefore pevertable) behavioural rule for interacting with one another.

Edited by SteveCook
Link to comment
Share on other sites

The cause of altruism's perpetuation into civilized eras is not physical, but psycho-epistemological...

I think I agree with this. Except I don't know what "psycho-epistemological" means.......duuuuhhhhhh

If it means what I suspect it means....then A.R. managed to say in one sentence what it has taken me several bleeding paragraphs to say!

Edited by SteveCook
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Except I don't know what "psycho-epistemological" means.......duuuuhhhhhh
I recommend Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Epistemology is traditionally viewed from a Platonic perspective where it isn't about human cognition: Rand grounds her epistemology in the human mind, which is oddly revolutionary.
Link to comment
Share on other sites

So, given that we now live in huge cities where the individuals that share our immediate environment are no more or less likely to be related to us than are the people who live a hundred miles away, why do we persist in seemingly altruistic behaviour to one another. The answer< I believe, is due to a genetic legacy left to us from our ancesters mentioned above. In other words, it does not, actually, make any genetis sense for us to be altruistic to each other in cities since we are not related. However, this tendancy evolved when it did make sense.

But one could also argue that being nice to your neighbors does offer some survival advantages if the behavior was reciprocated, regardless of whether or not you're genetically related, since it basically serves as a community insurance policy. This is particularly true if you think in terms of the societal model that immediately followed the hunter-gatherer phase - the agrarian society. In an early agrarian society, the ability to produce food has propelled the population size from the teens into the hundreds or even thousands. However since short of the few specialized artisans and beauracrats, nearly everyone were farmers, it was always an extremely busy time during planting and harvesting. Since most times it DOES matter how soon you do it (since for instance the longer it takes you to harvest, the more crops you lose to birds, rain, or the seeds naturally falling off), mostly the farming villages took turns helping each other (I know this since most of my family 3 and 4 generations ago were farmers).

This is why in most agrarian societies, there are always a large number of rituals, feasts, and festivals the revolves around harvesting and planting - it is essentially an arduous process of replacing GENES (coded life) with MEMES (coded behavior). Once the people begin to identify all the other villagers as "us" and not "them", our mammalian biological instincts takes over, and altruism works its magic. When you magnify this process further, almost everything from organized religion to fervid nationalism is aimed at memetic replication, with the societies essentially serving as competing SUPER-ORGANISMS (think Christianity vs Islam, or Capitalism vs Communism, or US vs Russia). Hence memetic (idealogical) evolution is essentially what we have now instead of a genetic one.

Defined as such, I would say that altruism has in a sense left the confines of the flesh, but is still very much relevant in modern societies, much like a rock that began rolling down a snow covered peak.

Edited by Moebius
Link to comment
Share on other sites

It's a physical fact about man and the Earth that you simply cannot survive completely on your own. That is the fundamental physical fact that primitive man had to fact. Society, or no society -- trying to survive all by yourself. I don't think it was physically possible.
And would you say that the difference between then and now would be that knowledge and the products of knowledge have made individual survival feasible? Not ideal by any means, but still feasible.
Link to comment
Share on other sites

And would you say that the difference between then and now would be that knowledge and the products of knowledge have made individual survival feasible? Not ideal by any means, but still feasible.

How is it any easier to survive today as an individual? Unless you mean to live nude on the street hunting rats and house cats, any time you pay for food, rent, or gas, you're relying on others.

In fact if anything we are LESS knowledgeable today about individual survival than we did as hunter-gatherers.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

And would you say that the difference between then and now would be that knowledge and the products of knowledge have made individual survival feasible? Not ideal by any means, but still feasible.
Yes -- the technology is out there, we can do it. Being supplied in advance is important -- tools, weapons, livestock, seeds. There would be little that one could do against the advancing Mongol horde, if that problem arose, but that's a problem of the past in most parts of the world. Millions of people do it for weeks at a time, and I know a guy who did it for a year. The fact that it's not ideal is a reason why people don't do it for an actual lifetime, i.e. they have the choice of a better life.
Link to comment
Share on other sites

There's a difference between living in solitude and individual survival I think. For instance:

Yes -- the technology is out there, we can do it. Being supplied in advance is important -- tools, weapons, livestock, seeds.

But then you might as well ask for being supplied with a life time supply of spam and a can opener.

However it is conceivable that a person that's trained and knowledgeable in such things can live, Robinson Caruso style, by himself. Of course that's assuming that the area he lives in plentiful in resources, and he faces no competition for said resources from animals or other humans.

Edited by Moebius
Link to comment
Share on other sites

But one could also argue that being nice to your neighbors does offer some survival advantages if the behavior was reciprocated, regardless of whether or not you're genetically related, since it basically serves as a community insurance policy

Quite so Mobius. However, I would not define the above as altruism. I would define it as "reciprocation" based on rational self interest. I do realise that, superficially, "reciprocation" looks like a duck and quacks like a duck when compared to altruism. But that doesn't mean it is a duck.

To reiterate, I would define pure altruism as the giving of resources (materials, time, etc) that profits the reciever and leaves the giver economically neutral at best and at a loss at worst. Profit and loss are defined in terms of reproductive success.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

In fact if anything we are LESS knowledgeable today about individual survival than we did as hunter-gatherers.

Yes I agree. I remember watching a doumentary on an anthropologist who spent a year living with an indigineous tribe of people in the Amazon. At first he was welcomed into the tribe. However, two weeks in, he was nearly murdered in his bed. He managed to persuade the tribal elders to spare him. He asked them why they had decided to kill him. They explained it was because he was a child in a man's body. This was something they found deeply offensive. An incident the previous day had led them to this conclusion. He had brought a camera with him. They had asked him how it worked. He explained that you aimed and pressed a button. you then sent the film off to a developers to be processed. They quickly deduced from this that much of what had initially made the anthropologist appear to be superior to them was in fact an illusion. Pretty much all of the things he relied upon for his survival were poorly understood by him because he relied on many other agents in his society to provide them for him. This is pretty much the definition of a child. They understand little of what is required to keep them alive, and why should they? they are children. These things are provided by the adults that are caring for them. The tribal eleders explained to the anthropologist that a fully formed human should know intimately all of the things he needs to keep himself and his family alive. Every tribesperson was taught this form a very early age. Pretty much the rest of that year was spent by the anthropologist learning how to be a man as defined by these tribespeople.

Edited by SteveCook
Link to comment
Share on other sites

There's a difference between living in solitude and individual survival I think.
Can you explain to me how this applies to what Rand actually said? I don't particularly mind people saying thing out of the blue about some distinction between "individual survival" and "living in solitude", but I don't see how this comment has the relevant hierarchical relationship to this thread. I'm offering to move your posts to a completelt separate thread, if that is what you'd like.
Link to comment
Share on other sites

It is in reference to what YOU said about millions of people live by themselves weeks at a time, and that some guy you know did it for a year. Two points:

1) I don't think the criteria you used to define individual survival is the same that Rand used when she talks about a prehistoric man's survival.

2) Nor is your idea of individual survival the same as mine - that of being well supplied ahead of time with seeds, livestock, weapons, and tools. It would seem to me that by that criteria, if I locked myself in an empty apartment and ate canned spam for an entire year, I would have accomplished the same thing that some guy you know did (in terms of survival), albeit with far less difficulty.

Edited by Moebius
Link to comment
Share on other sites

1) I don't think the criteria you used to define individual survival is the same that Rand used when she talks about a prehistoric man's survival.
I'm not trying to "define" individual survival, because it's clear what it means. I'm talking about the physical facts of prehistoric men, and how they have changed. That is what Rand was talking about, though without the need to go into such detail. That's what you should be talking about, and not come nonsense about locking yourself up in an apartment for a year.
Link to comment
Share on other sites

In her essay titled "Selfishness Without a Self" (in, Philosophy Who Needs It), Rand says this (somewhat in passing):

What exactly does the comment about prehistoric man mean? If one were to chew on this, in what myriad ways would prehistoric man be more physically dependent on others?

SN,

i think the main reason was just war. War was much more important in the survival of prehistoric man than it is now. This is because they were more dependent on natural resources for survival than we are; they never processed anything, never really preserved anything, never learnt how to produce food throughout the year, and so on. so naturally, they would quickly deplete whatever was naturally growing on their land (or the animals in their area) - or the rainy season would come to an end - and they would then just migrate to another area to look for more resources, which would result in war if there was another tribe there. To constantly survive such invasion, one always needed the leadership and protection of his tribe, and for him to get his next meal, he needed to cling to the group as they invaded the next land because there was no way of producing anything different that he would then trade with others. There was no entrepreneurship!

I'm not sure i would classify a producer/trader as (physically) dependent on others.

Edited by blackdiamond
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 3 weeks later...

I don't think I buy the ideas presented here for the rise of altruism. (unless they have indeed been proven...)

My own thinking is that altruism was (and is) a survival technique used by individuals who believe themselves, rightly or wrongly, to be weaker than others.

If someone in a tribe is not pulling their weight, is costing precious resources during tough times, and is a drag on the survival of the tribe, they would be exiled. That would be almost certain death to the individual in pre-historic times.

Individuals in that situation would have to come up with reasons for the tribe to keep them.

The only reason the tribe would keep someone is because of their unique talents.

If an individual really had no talents needed by the tribe, they would have to invent one, or, come up with elaborate lies.

For example, perhaps a tribe is having a tough time hunting deer. One hunter can not pull in his own food. He will be forced to leave. Perhaps he is able to convince the tribe he is good at other things. Making hides. Making weapons.

Maybe he can convince them he is a good artist.

Eventually some individual would come up with ideas such as, they are in contact with the gods. Keeping them around makes the gods happy. It would only take a coincidence or two to have most people fooled. (for example, I prayed for a good hunt and look, the men came back with more deer!)

Eventually you will have the guy who uses altruism to justify his presence in the tribe. If they do this to me, they can do it to you. Or, what a shame to our tribe, me being so hungry, are we that weak? The other tribes will think us an easy target with so many hungry.

I suppose you also get strong and weak people who want power, justifying altruism. The poor are their "subjects" who they keep with payments. You would never say such a thing, you have to fool them that you really care for them, that is why you give them extra meat at dinner. That individual builds up a power base of subjects.

Over time, excuses for altruism have become more and more complex. Economists tell us it is good to have welfare based on such and such a curve, it actually generates more income for everyone. The lies get more and more complex.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Y'all ought to read a book called The Moral Animal. Fascinating stuff. Deals a lot with the concept of tribal altruism. It's more of a definition than real altruism-- favors are doled out, for example, because one person failed to catch fish or find good food that day, so they eat by what others share. Or, of someone is sick, they are cared for because their survival is better for the tribe than their death. However, when one member fails to eventually pay back the effort given to him, he is shunned from the tribe, abused, etc. which is why nothing is more harmful to ones self than social shame.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...
 Share

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
×
×
  • Create New...