24 May 2007

Atlas dithered ... shrugged ... looked for common cause.

Nature or nurture ... an old debate, but never really laid to rest. Pretty much everyone agrees that we are a mixture of both, but no two people can quite agree on the composition of that mix.

Two friends have just exchanged differences of opinion on one aspect of this, prompted by an article here which suggests that we are neurologically "hard wired for empathy". It links with the digital free will thread weaving back and forth between here and Dr C's place; Dr C is far better qualified to comment than I, but I'll have quick layperson's poke at it anyway from a purely cybernetic viewpoint.

My two friends fall on either side of me in their responses: one optimistic, one pessimistic. On the one hand, human beings are wired for empathy and that's our hope for the future; on the other, we are a nasty brutish lot who act only in our own narrow self interest. Me, I think both can probably be true at once - and hope, like despair, lies exactly in the fuzziness of our programming.

It's obvious that we must have some level of hard wiring. At the most basic level, we must have the equivalent of a PC's BIOS - instructions which tell us how to get started, how to learn and how to stay alive long enough to do it. The work of Jaroslav Koch[1] showed (however morally uncertain I may be about his methods) that a human baby left largely to its own devices can learn an extraordinary amount in a very short time - like climbing ladders by age eight months, for example. In many aboriginal societies it is, or was, the habit to throw babes in arms into water - where they show an innate ability to swim, without any of the protracted learning which we need later in life.

It's also obvious from our extraordinary adaptability that we are very open to sophisticated responsive self programming through experience. Empirical observation suggests that we can, in some cases at least, even override the hard wiring where experiential programming gives a better result. We are also able to adapt our most fundamental sensory and motor apparatus to tasks far from the evolutionary inheritance which shaped them - such as reading the forces at play on a car and responding reflexively with control movements.

Given that flexibility and adaptability, it seems at one level not to matter what is hard wiring what is software. What matters is the final result of the mix.

Getting back to altruism and selfishness ... it seems likely to me that, for a social animal in a hostile environment, both would have been necessary to survival. A social animal which does not act to maximise the welfare of the group will reduce its own survival potential, since the group may be wiped out and leave the animal alone at the mercy of its enemies. Evolution would therefore select in favour of altruism. Only when the group had broken down to the point where it no longer offered mutual protection, or when resources were insufficient to sustain the whole group, would "every ape for itself" make survival sense - but, when that point came, evolution would select in favour of ruthless selfishness. The result, then, would have been a total control system which contained both imperatives in variable and conditional balance.

The real problem in today's world is that all of this relates to the group of which the individual organism feels itself to be part. Other groups are "them", and the survival advantages of altruism towards them would be far less clear - indeed, in competition for scarce resources, it would be a disadvantage. Individual selfishness, in time of group solidarity, would therefore transfer to the cause of group selfishness, the group being a single entity ("us") in the larger context of other groups ("them").

The group, in the aboriginal state, would have been extended sexual units. As populations rose, as social complexity increased, as agriculture and settlement and commerce developed, the group would grow and extend: tribe, nation, state. But the basic dynamic between groups would remain the same, as would the tension between selfishness and altruism within the expanded group itself.

If genetic selection for altruism (whether hard wired or programmed) is to operate in larger contexts, we will have to learn how to see larger groups of "them" as "us". That seems feasible, given time: in the definition of "us", humans are as flexible and adaptable as in everything else, and the expanding scope of communications between people blurs the us/them boundaries.

Looking around me, people have an astonishing plurality of "us" and "them" definitions, and an even greater capacity for defining the same person as both "us" and "them" in different circumstances. Generally speaking, clear external threat encourages bonding together of larger "us" groups, while general insecurity encourages fragmentation - which fits pretty well the idea of a social animal balancing two contrary survival imperatives between individual selfishness and group loyalty.

I seem to have wandered considerably off the point. Those who know me will tell you that this is nothing unusual. To try and salvage something from the tangled ball which I have created: I'm not sure it really matters whether or not we are hard wired for altruism; what matters is that we have the potential for altruism within our make up. To survive as a species (and, therefore, in a modern crowded, interconnected world, as individuals) we must both ensure that it is both triggered and encouraged. To do that we must act to ensure that self interest and altruism are, for as many people as possible, aligned.

1. Koch, J., Superbaby. 1976, London, Orbis. 0856134112 (pbk)

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