Useful Comments

It almost seems a contradiction, the idea that a long comments section following any post on the internet would be as useful as the post itself, or even more so, but I actually came across such a beast this morning. I was reading up on the argument between Dawkins and Wilson on “group selection”, in light of the recent “rash” (pardon the term) of stories about measles and vaccinations. The post (linked again here) is an article by Stephen Pinker, and the comments include those of many other important scientists and thinkers, all of whom shed interesting light on the subject.

The core notion is the uneasy relationship between selfish and altruistic behavior. People, and other animals, exhibit both when it would seem on the surface that evolution – being primarily concerned with the reproduction of the self – should only warrant selfish behavior. On the Dawkins “side” are those who extend selfishness to what they call “kin selection”, a sort of N degrees of separation – your sibling being half as important as your offspring, your cousin being a quarter as important and so on, such that you would tend to behave altruistically towards kin because they share a certain proportion of your genes. On the Wilson “side” are those who extend the mathematics to larger groups, beyond mere family ties. It’s hard for me to see how this is such a great gulf. We are all the same species, share some percentage of our genes with one another, family being closer than strangers, but we certainly form groups that are “like” families (team-building, religious and political affiliations, nationalities, ethnicities, etc …) and it’s obvious looking around you that we extend our altruistic tendencies to such groups, regardless of the underlying gene mathematics. We don’t calculate the relatedness to precision. Our genes may want to only extend altruism based on floating point equations of similarity, but our brains do not. Our brains are far more susceptible to error than our genes are but unfortunately for genes, brains have a whole lot of say-so in what goes on around here. Natural selection is a beautiful mechanism of change over time involving genetic copying errors leading to greater or lesser success in survival for individuals thus modifying species over the long haul, but what some would like to label “cultural selection” is a whole lot messier and tends to fuck things up just as randomly as genetic copying mistakes do. People only believe they belong to certain groups. Kids are raised Catholic or Muslim, for example. No one starts out that way. These random and erratic and essential erroneous associations lead to all sorts of mischief later on. Brains choose their groups irrationally. Genes select theirs automatically.

In other words, it seems to me that the distinction between”kin” and “group” is a matter of degree, not of kind. In the end, we behave altruistically as individuals because it benefits more than just ourselves and our immediate offspring, and that is the whole point of widespread vaccination. Communities develop a “herd immunity” which is the essential factor in stopping the spread of highly contagious diseases like measles. When the group is entirely immunized (or nearly entirely) then the disease has no chance to spread. When there are enough infectable agents, though, each one infected can infected many others, and so the disease does spread. Many anti-vaxxers believe it’s about personal choice for themselves and their own family, when the real issue is the community at large, and sometimes you have to do things for the herd.

We see this in other ways as well. The same reason people fought against Hitler is the same reason people opposed the war in Vietnam, though the actions were the complete opposite. White people supporting civil rights, men supporting women’s rights, straights supporting gay rights, are all acting in the interests of the herd more than their own limited individual self-interest. As a species we have to live with this contradiction between altruism and selfishness. History teaches us that we can never have one without the other for long. Capitalism with no regulation leads to massive inequality and suffering. Socialism with no individual empowerment leads to cultural and economic stagnation. We need freedom and we need government. We need to express ourselves and we need to listen to others. Like a football running back who strides for personal glory, yet sacrifices his body to block for his teammates, there are two sides of every coin.



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