Thursday, July 19, 2007

Altruism and Tribalism

I have been thinking of David Sloan Wilson's argument against Dawkins, in which he stresses group selection and the regulatory role of religion in social conduct. I have already pointed out one of the flaws in it--a major flaw, in my opinion, which is that religion may be subverted and this regulatory role corrupted for personal gain. Wilson's excursion into viral reproduction seems rather beside the point--I fail to see what an overly reproductive virus has to do with human altruism. The closest behavioural equivalent to this case would seem to be our domestication of animals.

The issue of group selection is critical to his argument. Here I have to side with Dawkins; the unit of transmission is the gene, and the vehicle in which the resulting trait is tested and selected for is the individual. This, I think, is something that Dawkins got exactly right. You cannot pass along a trait you don't have, and those who don't reproduce do not pass on their traits. Group dynamics, however, may enhance the surviveability of members of that group. This does not make the group the unit of selection, but it does mean that the traits of members of the group are more likely to survive. It may well be that homo sapiens outcompeted neanderthals through their ability to form extended social networks and long range trade--if so, this is an example where practices between members of a group enhance the fitness of the individuals. Dawkins himself talks about this dynamic in the chapter of the Selfish Gene entitled Nice Guys Finish First. Individuals who work cooperatively will tend to appear in clusters linked by family ties. The mutual support afforded by this trait would give the members of this extended clan a considerable advantage over those who did not share it, and were not part of the clan.

Yet, to preserve this trait amongst the clan, the members of the clan would also likely evolve a desire to screen entrants to the clan through marriage and reproduction, so that the members of the clan would 'breed true', and offspring would also have the altruistic trait. Those who did not have this trait would be refused entry into the clan through marriage or sexual access. The tribe would come to identify itself with a code which stressed reciprocity and interdependence over individual gain. As a signal that one shares this code, certain expensive behaviours would be required which indicated that the individual holds certain values to take precedence over individual gain. These behaviours are not like the peacock's tail--an extravegance which advertises fitness sufficient to survive a significant handicap. Instead, they are behaviours which benefit others, but which work in tandem with matching traits in the tribe, allowing the potential suitor, should he join the tribe, to reap the benefits of tribal altruism. The handicap becomes an advantage.

Amongst the members of the tribe, those who wish to specialize in setting the code of the tribe must exhibit altruistic behaviour towards the tribe to an extraordinary degree. Their generosity and self-sacrifice must be exceptional. This is the root of our regard for heroes, those whose physical and economic generosity go beyond the call of duty. Amongst the Norsemen, kings were often called "ring givers", cementing loyalty and a reputation for generosity with extravagant gifts. The heroes of ancient legend were men who fought, and died, for the protection of the tribe. In many cultures, even families who are not wealthy may push their resources to the limit in lavish dinners and parties, and in public acts of philanthropy. This display of personal sacrifice for the common good establishes their reputation as a member in good standing, worthy to draw upon the generosity of others in time of need.

Ascetics make the most extravagant display of personal sacrifice, giving away all that they have, owning no property, and having no means of self-sustenance beyond the generosity of others. All of their energies are turned towards the tribal code. This ostentatious display of selflessness is no less than an attempt to raise altruism to a perfect art. In return for this severe handicap, the ascetic is granted an unparalleled reputation. His advice is sought by all, even by the wealthy and powerful. His sacrifice is a shiboleth, a stamp of authenticity and authority, for by its very nature no purely self-interested person would choose this path.

Amongst Catholics with large families, it was a tradition that the first son would take over the family fortune, and the second would enter the priesthood. The priest, of course, took a vow of poverty, and renounced all reproductive rights--apparently a losing strategy, from a reproductive point of view. But the contribution of one child to regulative class gained the family access to the common wealth, tied them closer to community, and buffered them from transitory misfortune. The other siblings stood to gain much from this association. It was the equivalent of attaining membership in a welfare state, from which one could draw in time of need. That, at least, was the unspoken intent. As I have already pointed out in my essay on Sanctity, this is not how it usually works out.

The dark side of altruism is the screening process--the desire of the tribe to deny access to freeloaders. Freeloaders have two means of gaining entry: direct admission, and genetic admission through offspring. Because of the much greater investment in offspring by females, the sexual conduct of women comes under much greater scrutiny. It is far easier to disown the offspring of an undesirable female of another tribe than it is to disown the offspring of the females of one's own tribe. The philanderings of a wayward son may be accepted, even joked about, but the illegitimate offspring of a female, by a male who demonstrates his lack of commitment to the tribe by refusing responsibility, is another matter. The double standard should be readily apparent. Birth control also makes these practices obsolete.

Entrance into the tribe is strictly guarded, by elaborate courtship rituals, parental and familial approval, and a long process of familiarization. Strangers must prove themselves. This is the root of resistance to immigration, in which foreigners are admitted to the common wealth of the nation, and resistance to the welfare state, where simple need is granted access without consideration of past contribution. The welfare state, and immigration, rely on a more optimistic view of human nature--that most people will contribute when they are in a position to. Given the thousands of years of tribal selection, this is a reasonable assumption. The welfare state also recognizes that in a fluidly mobile society with large population concentrations, people can be fall through the cracks. Individuals may be separated from their families and friends, and in large cities, you may know hardly any of the people you see.

Expulsion from the tribe can occur in cases where freeloading is observed amongst existing members of the tribe. Those who have previously demonstrated their commitment to the tribe are far more likely to be given aid in hard times than those who are chronically in need. The temporarily unfortunate are a better risk. And there are different types of poverty; the ascetic demands little and contributes much, while the genuinely incompetent or selfish are a net drain. In Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt bitterly recalls how the Catholic Church cast his family aside as lost causes. This was a direct contradiction to Christian ethics, but not to old instincts. It also proved to be a miscalculation; none of McCourt's family, other than his father, proved to be chronically incompetent, and they never returned to the church.

In all of this, we can see some of the rudiments of religion. One thing notably absent in this picture is God himself. God, or the gods, were invoked as a catch-all explanation to natural events; we not only have a predilection to seeing intentionality where none exists, we also regard intentional conscious beings as atomically simple. Our ability to deal with other conscious beings is so specialized and deeply ingrained that we mistake a human mind, the most complex natural phenomena that we know of, as a fundamental building block. But God as cause or intentional being does not require the moral aspect of religion, and the moral aspect of religion does not seem to require God. Cognitive errors inspire belief in the God of Creation, but not the God of Judgement.

But the character of God is an ideal shorthand for the code of the tribe. We are ideally suited for telling stories about people, and telling a story about a divine persona which embodies our ethical principles is the simplest, most efficient, and highest fidelity means of transmitting shared values. The God of Judgement becomes fused with the God of Creation. Loyalty to the god of the tribe is an indicator of loyalty to the tribe. The god favours the tribe, the tribe is united under the god, and the values of the tribe are expressed in the character of the divine personality. The God of Judgement is the God of the Tribe.

Uniting the two gave a ring of objective reality to the morals of the tribe. Their laws were written in stone. Absolute power, reality, and goodness were united in one subject. The contemplation of the deity bound the tribe together, in a way that abstract principles could not, particularly to an illiterate population.

This answers a question that has plagued me for a long time: why the religious obsession with sex? But if sex is the principle access point to membership to the tribe, permitting undesirable traits to enter the population, then this may be one of the oldest parts of religion, possibly predating religion itself. It also explains why domination of women is so common, and why female genital mutilation and even honour killing have appeared in multiple cultures--Islam is used to justify these practices, but they are not part of the religion itself, and even conservative Imams have no problem denouncing them. All of these practices guard entry points into the tribe by curbing female sexuality. But beyond their sheer barbarity, the exasperating thing about these practices is that they don't even serve their original purpose. Birth control would do that, yet sheer force of tradition maintains these primitive practices. Once again, our genes make fools of us.