Monday, December 21, 2009

The Selfless Gene

Biology fascinates me. I love the work of Stephen Jay Gould who theorized how change in evolution happens at the edges, the margin, the fringe. He calls this ‘punctuated equilibrium”, and it explains how evolution doesn’t take place on a predictable, linear path but with unpredictable and dramatic bursts coming from the outer reaches of the species. The same can be said of the world of ideas and innovation.

Another biologist, Richard Dawkins, a brilliant communicator, created a lot of confusion when he called his 1976 book on evolution, ‘The Selfish Gene’. The book details the brutal efficiency of evolution, but the phrase itself has entered common usage to mean that human beings are genetically programmed for selfishness. It means nothing of the sort – and isn’t it great when research comes along that proves the exact opposite.

The NY Times reported last month that research into young babies demonstrates that we are born with an in-built instinct to help others. Before parents have even begun to teach the rules of social behavior, researchers saw kids as young as 12 or 18 months in small, selfless acts of kindness. This innate generosity and willingness to share and cooperate is unique to humans; even our closest ancestors have no interest in helping out a fellow chimpanzee unless there is something in it for them.

Researchers are quick to point out that there is ample evidence that selfishness plays a part in our make-up too. As one of the researchers puts it, “That’s why we have moral dilemmas, because we are both selfish and altruistic at the same time.”

These findings confirm what radical optimists already believe, and it’s nice to have some science to put in the back pocket.

1 comment:

observant said...

Science At Vision’s Edge and Not Science In (Back) Pocket Please!

In the hope of changing perceptions for the better...

- Sip.
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- How is your cup of tea?
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- Is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” essay so incredibly phenomenal?
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- Is a chain-reported perceived demonstration of questionable innate altruism in 18month old infants, self-proclaimed as proven, science in pocket?
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- Can I suggest to you some interesting proposals?
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Excerpts from the blog: “Another biologist, Richard Dawkins, a brilliant communicator, created a lot of confusion when he called his 1976 book on evolution, ‘The Selfish Gene’. The book details the brutal efficiency of evolution, but the phrase itself has entered common usage to mean that human beings are genetically programmed for selfishness. It means nothing of the sort – and isn’t it great when research comes along that proves the exact opposite.”…These findings confirm what radical optimists already believe, and it’s nice to have some science to put in the back pocket.”

Excerpt from the blog reference NYT article, 11/30/09: “When infants 18 months old see an unrelated adult whose hands are full and who needs assistance opening a door or picking up a dropped clothespin, they will immediately help, Michael Tomasello writes in “Why We Cooperate,” a book published in October.”

Let’s imagine. If a giant stranger came from nowhere and dropped a sharp object near an 18-month infant and he really did not have much of a choice to defend himself or run away on small and wobbly legs, what would he do to increase his perceived chances of survival? Perhaps, he would instinctively try to befriend the giant, whom he thinks (feels?) might hurt him (he doesn’t really know her) by trying to help her, to gain her good graces for mercy or sympathy, or possibly by proving his use? Perhaps, having the much smaller frame, he thinks (intuitively feels?) he may have a better chance of seeing a “small” object than she does, so his efforts may indeed be intelligently selfish? Can these views be possible?

“But Dr. Tomasello finds the helping is not enhanced by rewards…” (same article) Isn’t the infant’s self-perceived better survival chance his biggest reward?

How can we confirm the infant’s real intentions (he can probably say or repeat very simple words if any)? Maybe he is just “imitating” his parents whom he has watched in a similar situation (even though the parents may not have been explicitly teaching him any useful life tips) and is “practicing” simple cooperative behavior required to survive in a highly interdependent society?

“On the other hand, they’ve had lots of opportunities to experience acts of helping by others. I think the jury is out on the innateness question” (Elizabeth Spelke, a developmental psychologist at Harvard, same article)

“Modern humans have lived for most of their existence as hunter gatherers, so much of human nature has presumably been “shaped for survival” in such conditions. From study of existing hunter gatherer peoples, Dr. Kaplan has found evidence of cooperation woven into many levels of human activity.” (same article, emphasis added)

How can we selectively mine-sip-spray a daily newspaper’s cup of tea on some controversial (scientific?) research of a complicated issue and then present it as proven “science” in our “back pocket”? No matter what our fine intentions may be, let’s please take science out of our “back pockets” and put it where it belongs, that is, “at the edge” of our vision and thoughts, and please let’s not jump to hasty and possibly misleading conclusions on tough scientific questions.

- Are you having issues with your session initiation protocol?
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- Can we possibly see in perspective please?
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- Is a perceived demonstration of questionable innate altruism a possibility in science?
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- You mean possibilities in speculative science?
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- Isn’t this progress in scintillating science of future fantasy?
- Yeah!
- Sounds great!