Altruism is a very heavily loaded word  in evolutionary psychology/ biology and I would not add to the confusion by defining the term myself. Suffice it to say , that I will use it in all of its various intuitive and theoretical usages.

The evolution of biological Altruism is generally considered as a challenge to Darwinian evolution and there are thought to be two main theories of how Altruism is possible or has evolved. These are Hamilton’s Kin-selection and inclusive fitness theory and Trivers’ Reciprocal Altruism theory, though some prominent people disagree that there are indeed two separate phenomenon at work and try to argue that they are one and the same phenomenon

I would argue instead that there are more varieties of Altruism than the above two- and that it may also be beneficial to decompose the phenomenon of kin selection and reciprocal altruism into their sub components and to to derive/ elucidate the proximate mechanisms that are involved in these phenomenon as opposed to a single-minded focus on the ultimate explanations of why and how such models can give rise to altruism.

To that effect I would like to separate the parental-investment and parent-child ‘kid-selection’ effects from other genetic relatives or ‘kin-selection’ effects. The reason I believe they are separate is because having a child or Kid involves bringing in a new relative with 0.5 relatedness in this world , so the cost to bring in to the parent can be very high as post facto (childbirth) the inclusive fitness becomes 1.5 +0.5b-c (cost) while earlier it was only 1.  Thus, the act can be undertaken if 0.5 +0.5b>c.  In the kin selection case however the inclusive fitness is 1-c +0.5+ 0.5*b after the altruistic act vis-a-vis 1.5 before the act ; so  the act can only be undertaken if 0.5b>c . the addition of a constant 0.5 to the first equation changes the dynamics to a large extent and thus my idea to keep the two phenomenon separate.

Also, reciprocal altruism can itself be broken into some differing phenomenons. The first phenomenon is generalized reciprocity (which is even found in rats , see also this) and others are direct, indirect and strong reciprocity. To summarize form an earlier post:

As per what is know about the evolution of Altruism, it is surmised that co-operation in groups emerges based on four types of reciprocity- direct, indirect, strong and generalized.

In direct reciprocity, one helps another person/animal because the other animal has helped oneself in the past. This requires cognitive capacities to recognize different individuals and require social memory as to which member of the group had helped and which had defected or free loafed. While some animals like the Elephant have good social memories and the ability to remember and recognize different individuals, most animals fall short on these traits.

In indirect reciprocity, one helps another because one has observed the other guy to have helped someone else. This again requires cognitive capacities to recognize and also to remember This is more so based on a reputation system, wherein you start trusting someone more if you observe him doing good deeds. In return you are likely to help the do-gooder , when he is in time of need.

In strong reciprocity, people punish the defectors or free-loafers or non-cooperators. This requires sophisticated cognitive abilities to recognize the defectors and a willingness to undergo cost to oneself while punishing the defector. This too, along with the above two, has rarely been observed in animals apart from humans.

Finally, generalized reciprocity happens when one indulges in good deeds towards a stranger just based on the fact that one has in the near future received such help from other strangers/ con specifics. There are variations on this theme, whereby if people have been put in a good mood (which is a substitute for having received a good deed) they are more likely to indulge in altruistic acts like picking up books dropped by a confederate. This type of reciprocity does not make very strong cognitive demands as one just has to remember the summary of whether the environment is cooperative or not, to produce the right kind of behavior.

So based on above I would like to differentiate between two clusters of reciprocity: Generalized reciprocity not requiring sophisticated cognitive mechanisms, but requiring global assumptions about the social environment; and strong, direct and indirect reciprocity – all involving sophisticated cognitive mechanisms but not dependent on assumptions about the global social environment.

With this I would now like to move to my main thesis. I argue that altruism is a social and group phenomenon and to understand all the proximal mechanisms that are involved in altruistic acts we have to appreciate the mechanisms and drives that lead to group formation, group cohesion and expansion and finally group thriving or differential success from other similar groups based on selection of members belonging to the group such that their is non-zero sum benefits of being in the group.

I would argue that all of the above can be understood in the eight stage framework, with the first three stages related to group formation; the next two related to investment in group (expanding or making it cohesive) and the last three related to populating the group with better individuals/ creating a suitable group that has maximum payoffs for all.

To start with , let us revisit the eight basic adaptive problems as elaborated here and here.

  1. The first problem to be solved ‘foe’ is also the first primary driver for the evolution of groups. Groups or herd evolve per se, because a solitary creature is more vulnerable to predation than as part of a group. This is how herding evolved. The proximate mechanism working at this level is that of merging with a group. 
  2. The second problem to be solved ‘food’ is the secondary driver for evolution of groups. It is envisaged that hunting/ gathering as part of a group leads to better  and bigger catches than are individually possible. this provides the incentive to work with other group members to hunt/ forage. This introduces the problem of who would eat the catch when one of them kills, but others are part of the raid party. The solution to the above problem is achieved using the mechanisms of sharing of the spoils. Thus, the proximate mechanism working at this level is a tendency to share the food / resources when begged for by those who are of the same band/ herd/ raiding party.  
  3. The third problem to be solved is ‘friends’ or con-specifics themselves. As all the group members  are competitors in the same niche, they have to learn to form alliances and co-operate in non-zero sum games with other partners when such co-operation does not entail a price and leads to mutual benefit.the example here would be that of grooming. A bird cannot remove lice from the top of its own head , but can do so easily if another friend removes the lice for her. This is a nonzero sum game. by co-operating both gain and nobody loses. The grooming can happen simultaneously so there is no reciprocity or memory involved. The proximate mechanism here is that of grooming or befriending (spending time with other just to make the alliance better).
  4. The fourth problem to be solved is that of ‘kids‘ and how to help those vulnerable, but related individuals. The kid-selection and parental investment concerns dominate here and lead to emergence of altruism directed towards ones offspring. Now the proximate mechanism devised to help in kid selection is that of care or empathy and this extends to all those who are sick,  vulnerable, infirm or unable to fend for themselves. The care ethic is born and is most visible in contexts where the mother-child or provider-infirm relationship can be activated. Help in rearing infants by related aunts etc is an example of this mechanisms.
  5. The fifth problem to be solved is that of ‘kin’ or all the other related individuals in the group. Kin selection comes into picture, but for it to work one has to properly identify ‘like’ people, who are likely to share genes. It is presumed that selection favored those who can judge likeness of phenotype from likeness of genotype and a a simplistic scenario could be that all the group members are considered as like and one tries to identify with them. This is as opposed to trying to differentiate from them and treating them as not-like. Thus, the proximate mechanism involved could be that of loyalty to the group and identification with the group as opposed to rebelliousness/ unconventionality/ differentiation from the group. The drive to find ‘like’ and ‘related’ individuals could easily lead to the ethic of community/ loyalty towards the self identified group. Also, forgiveness instinct towards those considered part of group and hence pertaining to valuable relationships that should be maintained despite small annoyances.
  6. The sixth problem to be solved is that of ‘selecting’ a partner/ partners with which one could indulge in altruistic games. Here the payoff to another would be at a cost to oneself and hence it is not a simple case of co-operation or mutualism in which both parties would benefit. Ideally, when partners have not been determined a priori and one has to discover the characteristics of the majority of the partners (or the population)  and at the same time not harm oneself by unconditional altruistic costs, the viable strategy would be to play with many diverse individuals and play using a generalized reciprocity scheme. At the end of many iterations, one can look at ones strategy and depending on how much altruistic or selfish it is, determine the characteristics of the population. This requires minimal cognitive demands as in not requiring the ability to remember individual interactions. In simple words this can be dubbed as Trust. You trust other people as you do not really know them, except in so far as they are part of the group and hence likely to have a majority group characteristic.  thus, a typical example would be ultimatum game. though the person with which you may playing may be stranger, you know a few things from your generalized reciprocity interactions with other individuals to know that majority of them are fair (make offers at 50 %) and also punish small splits. Thus, based on how you yourself have been given endowments in the past (and how others have rejected endowments given by you) you can reasonably play an ultimatum game with a stranger with same population wide results. Thus, the proximate mechanism here is that of Trusting others to be like the general population stereotype. thus, in humans, most of us are ‘altruistic’/ ‘good’ and hence we trust well rather than be suspicious.             
  7. The seventh task is that of seducing or attracting the right kind of partners so that the payoff the group, and hence yours, increases. Three separate mechanisms are at work here. Direct reciprocity harnesses our ability to remember individuals to pay them back in the future. Gratitude is the proximal mechanism that ensures that we do indeed pay back when time comes. Strong reciprocity ensures that we pay back, in another sense of the term, to the free-riders / defectors. By having punishment in the system one can ensure that the group is not overtaken by free-riders and defectors. The proximal mechanism active here is that of vengeance and not letting the culprits go off scot free. Indirect reciprocity on the other hand works on third party interactions and is based on respect , that is a generalized reputation of an agent to be ‘good’/’bad’ and acting towards them based on their reputations rather than their immediate behaviors. The proximate mechanism active here is respect/ authority. 
  8. The eighth task is to secure the group or keep the group well-knit and isolate form other ‘corrosive’ groups. One problem that poses a hurdle to group securing is unexpected payoffs (like war loot) and how they are handled by the group. They may be distributed to everyone equally, distributed as per a hierarchy or consumed by a few dominant individuals.Here the ethics of fairness and equality is the proximate mechanism that is used to settle matters. Another important factor here is not to let other group members infiltrate the successful group and subvert it from within. This gives rise to the ethic of purity and sanctity : the group is considered pure and sanctimonious and only other pure individual are allowed to join the group. The perverts within the group may be destroyed/ redeemed/ salvaged.                     

Thus, in my view, altruism involves all these proximal mechanisms: merging, sharing, grooming and befriending, caring, loyalty (identifying and forgiving), trusting; justice as in gratitude (positive justice),vengeance (negative justice) and respect (generalized justice); and finally the ethics of fairness/equality and purity /sanctity. Some of these can be easily mapped to Haidt’s five basic moral foundations.

In a follow-up post I will try to show how these eight altruistic proximate mechanism are reflected in personality traits especially with reference to HEXACO personality model to which one of my readers pointed me to.

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