Sunday, January 08, 2006

Altruism and programmability

Herbert Gintis is a game theorist. In this interview in Science & Theology News he talks about his theory about why people are altruistic.
The reason humans are so successful is normally attributed to the fact that they're smart. The reason they're smart is because humans operate in complex groups. The reason they can operate in complex groups is that they have strong reciprocity: Not only do they share, but they're willing to punish non-sharers. If you look at the whole range of social species, you find that punishing is very important. …

You always think of the hive as the big social collective, everybody does what they're supposed to do. But that's not true. Workers often try to lay eggs, even though only the queen is supposed to lay eggs. If workers lay eggs, there are other workers that run around, eat the eggs, then punish the workers that laid the eggs. Wherever you find cooperation, you'll also find punishment. Think of your own body. Each cell has its own self-interest to multiply. Why don't they go berserk? How do you get cells to cooperate? The answer is, you punish cells that don't cooperate. As far as we know, there is no other vertebrate species that punishes. Humans are by far the most social vertebrate species and we argue that that's why humans are so cooperative. …

We argue that everyday life has little bits of altruism all over the place. They're generally not that costly, but they're extremely important. For instance, when I go on an airplane, everyone is nice to each other; they're never going to see each other again. Why be polite? You can imagine if you put chimps on an airplane, it would be a total disaster. Why go through these little amenities: "Can I help you with your bag?" "Let me move for you." "Let me get up so you can get out and go to the bathroom." Think about it. If you put a bunch of sociopaths on an airplane, it would be a disaster. But these little amenities, in everyday life, we tend to help each other even if it doesn't cost that much. This makes society work.

It may be that you really care about the other guy, and very often that's the case. Human beings' notion of empathy is very strong. And that's what altruism is. It's wanting to help people at a cost to yourself -- but also punish people at a cost to yourself when they're behaving in an anti-social manner. And then the question is, how can human beings be this way? No other species is like this. And that's where the biology comes in. You have to show that groups in which you have a strong reciprocator, an altruist, will do better than groups that don't have altruism. …
And here is his key point.
Sociologists have a concept called socialization, which means the internalization of norms, which is completely opposite from every other behavior. There's no such thing in biology or economics or political science or anthropology.

It seems to me that the principle of socialization was one of the established behavioral universal principles in academic sociology. What we propose is that human beings have this capacity to be programmed. Humans are the only ones where humans can want things just because they were socialized to want them [emphasis added] -- want to be fair, want to share, want to help your group, want to be patriotic, want to be honest, want to be trustworthy, want to be cheerful -- when they are costly to our selves. If you're honest as a principle, that's good for everybody else and it costs you. So being honest is part of strong reciprocity.
He goes on to make what I see as a different point.
Within a complex society, the general approach to this is gene-culture co-evolution. In biology, you get genetic information. In sociology or anthropology, you get cultural information. But really, in human society, they go together. Genetic evolution leads to culture. In that culture, given strong reciprocity, you can be rewarded for being nice or for cooperating. So cultural evolution can lead to genetic evolution. Human beings become nicer and more reciprocal and more honest. So, you get this whole dialectic back-and-forth between cultural evolution and genetic evolution and the product is human beings.
This is not about being programmed by society; it is about evolving to be social, which is different. Then he goes back to his original programmability point.
The interesting thing is, once you get people who are programmable, you can program them to do a lot of things, even things that aren't in their interest. You can program people to be honest, even when it's in their self-interest sometimes not to be honest. A lot of people won't be honest. By programmability, you can get people to be more altruistic than they would ever be if they were self-interested. Now we have all these suicide bombers. That's completely obvious. You get these people who are programmable and you can program them to be willing to commit suicide. You could never do that to an animal, not willingly. Our argument is that this is one more kind of collective social mechanism that allows us to cooperate.
The more general point is his claim that we have evolved to be programmable. But he also claims that we have evolved to be emapthetic independently of being programmed.
People don't like to see others suffer. After 9/11, you saw in NYC, the whole city rise up, people helping each other. It's just a spontaneous empathy. Empathy itself is the result of gene-culture coevolution, because, again, people are empathetic; They help in the short run because they feel like it; they feel good helping. But in the long run it helps them because people help back or some phenomenon allows empathy to be fitness enhancing. I think that's more important than what they were taught by their parents. But some of that can come in too.
So what's the real point? Is there any doubt that people are programmable? Certainly not, if by programmable one means can be influenced by others. If we weren't programmable, advertising wouldn't work. Of course some people are more easily influenced than others and can be influenced in more extreme ways than others. Today's suicide bombers are probably not all that different from yesterday's cult members. Do you remember Johnstown where almost an entire cult committed suicide?

So our intelligence and our ability to think and to be influenced by outside persuasion is stronger than in other animals. So what? In fact, other animals can be trained. It's just more difficult and can't be done through conversation. So at this point, I'm not quite sure that there is as much new about Gintis's argument as it seemed at first.

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