Saturday, May 16, 2009

You Sure We Aren't There Yet?

Here's the summation from latest declaration posted by Dr. Wilson at Huff Post:
'No matter how the groups are formed--at random, on the basis of experience, or through the funnel of genetic relatedness--no matter how flexible the choice of behaviors--altruism is locally disadvantageous and requires higher-level selection to evolve. It doesn't matter whether you call it group selection, kin selection, reciprocity, game theory, selfish gene theory, or anything else. All evolutionary theories of social behavior include the original problem and solve the problem only by identifying factors that enable between-group selection to overcome within-group selection. As Ed Wilson and I concluded at the end of our review article titled "Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology", "Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary."'

Here's a series of unanswered replies from yours truly. I think my last is the closest yet to the mark I'm trying to hit.

What you actually are observing is the mechanism of reciprocity in action, and since it's built into all species genetically, with different strategic aspects, as well as being fine tuned by their cultures, what you think you have observed by these experiments and exercises fails in understanding that the process isn't simply one of calculating advantages of selfishness versus altruism. Because these calculations have already been arranged algorithmically through a species' evolutionary experiences, and are based on factors of behavior more varied than a simple selfish versus altruism dichotomy. And they will be measurably different for each species and each cultural milieu of that species. You, Trivers, and others that see these factors as the key to social behaviors are simply mistaken - but your modeling is set up to be a self-fulfilling demonstration of these prophetic assumptions.
Posted 05:11 AM on 05/13/2009

You make the mistake of assuming altruism and selfishness are separate genetically based traits. They are not. If anything, they are optional choices in a spectrum of strategic responses regulated by a combination of genetic drivers.
Everyone has access to them by individually different measure, just as we differ individually in personalities. You can assign students roles to play in games, but the fact that the results will be then predictable tells us something about the effectiveness of the strategies, but nothing much about how the actual differences in individual personalties molds these strategies in "real consequence" circumstances. And nothing much about the entire range of strategies that make up the reciprocity tool kit.
Posted 06:02 AM on 05/13/2009

Finally, this is the claim that really bugs me: 
"Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary."
This faux axiom is fashioned to seem the paradoxical solution to some heretofore unsolvable conundrum. Thus by presenting the paradox we are meant to infer there's wisdom in there somewhere.
But the essence of paradox is that what often passes for wisdom is only an illusion. In this one, you portray a group as something formed by individuals for mutually cooperative purposes. Yet we are then told that for such a group to be successful, a majority of individuals in that group would have to be essentially non-cooperative.
You say your models have shown this to be true, as if no other rational explanation is needed - in any case I can't find where you have analyzed the "why" for this being the case in any clear and unambiguous fashion. Simply stating it's a valid conclusion based on several years of applying lots of math doesn't eliminate the feeling that presenting such authorittive statements as a substitute for a clear and reasoned examination of the "why" of the matter is at best suspect.
Posted 09:24 PM on 05/13/2009

And did you ever consider that if selfishness beats altruism within groups, it's when the goal is not to achieve success as a group but to achieve success as an individual within the group - the purpose of the group formation itself being more or less incidental to the purposes of these individuals.
But when groups themselves compete, and the altruistic appear to beat the selfish, what you seemingly designate as an altruistic group is in actuality a group of individuals acting altruistically among themselves to create a group that will be, in effect, the more competitive. Making it therefor more selfish than the competing group of strategically selfish individuals, who by failing to cooperate for a common goal, lose as a group. 
And thus if you create groups that can work toward a goal as one individual, you have much the same dynamic in group competition as you do in indiviidual competition. When the goal is selfish, the selfish always win.
 Paradox dissolved.
Posted 03:01 PM on 05/16/2009

All life is about purpose and the strategies that evolve to best accomplish it. Groups may be formed for a purpose or find themselves in service of one by accident. Strategies are adapted accordingly. Anything not concerned with such purposes is irrelevant commentary.