Scientific Sense Podcast

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Depressing altruism

Recent research from Princeton, argues that altruism originates from sinister and self-serving tendencies. Much of what has been attributed to the kindness of the human heart can be traced back to local competition and gaining control over zones of influence. This further reinforces the idea that humans are ordinary animals, with little difference from other members of the ecosystem with tightly controlled objective functions.

It is, indeed, depressing. Almost every action, thought and idea can be traced back to fairly crude attempts at utility maximization – at the individual or group level. A few philosophers in the past have argued about the futility of it all, only to be swept aside by the mobs of ignorance. The question is whether humanity is able to move to another level of societal development. Such a transition, however, appears to be a quantum process. At the status-quo energy level, improvements are not possible and any observed abnormalities (such as altruism) can be easily explained away.  More importantly, a quantum energy state transition is never possible from within – humanity appears to be permanently sealed at where they started and where they are likely to end, maximizing food and reproduction.

Only some kind of extra-terrestrial jolt can possibly move society to another state, with different goals.

1 comment:

  1. Darwinian logic need not be viewed as sinister. One could as easily characterize it as proof of god's mercy, that even Nature red in tooth and claw produces virtues beyond the merely aggressive.
    That said, your essential point on the operation of altruism is instructive. Look at how missionaries doing good works spread the faith. If that kind of thing interests you, you'd like Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn.