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william.scherk

Have your fiance tested for the 'ruthlessness' gene

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The science blogs have been full of links to a new study of possible genetic input into trust and cooperative behaviours -- in which heritable variations in vasopressin receptors are posited to strongly influence that behaviour. (Thanks to the departed George Donnelly for his followup to MSK's posts referencing Wayne Dyer -- my hunt for relevant information began with his useful post of June 13 this year)

The hormone/neurotransmitter vasopressin and its receptors are best illustrated in differences between the monogamous prairie vole and its close relative the montane vole (the prairie rodent is monogamous, the montane vole not). The hormone is believed to play a part in 'communication, aggression, sexual behavior, and social memory.'

"In monogamous species, such as the prairie vole, vasopressin facilitates affiliation, pairbonding, and paternal care, whereas in the closely related montane vole, which is polygamous, vasopressin fails to influence social behavior." -- from the 1999 ScienceDaily story that features the breakthrough receptor research -- a transgenic vole whose pair-bonding behaviour was transformed by genetic manipulation.

The research that was engendered by the vole experiments has ramified hugely, involving vasopressin receptors and aggression, trust, cooperation, and even altruism.**

In the recent work, the standard socio-economic experiment "the dictator game" has been married with tests of genes responsible for vasopressin receptors. For those interested in the intersection of altruism/genetic research, some intriguing findings -- below is the abstract to the study which just appeared in the Public Library of Science (full text here):

Heritability of cooperative behavior in the trust game

Although laboratory experiments document cooperative behavior

in humans, little is known about the extent to which individual

differences in cooperativeness result from genetic and environmental

variation. In this article, we report the results of two

independently conceived and executed studies of monozygotic

and dizygotic twins, one in Sweden and one in the United States.

The results from these studies suggest that humans are endowed

with genetic variation that influences the decision to invest, and to

reciprocate investment, in the classic trust game. Based on these

findings, we urge social scientists to take seriously the idea that

differences in peer and parental socialization are not the only

forces that influence variation in cooperative behavior.

Strangely (or not so strangely) there is already a $99.00 genetic test offered to sort out the ruthless, selfish suitor from the more benevolent one:

Ruthlessness/bonding gene test

You will receive 1 mouth swab and collection tube per test, in a return package, along with specific instructions on how to collect the samples. Ask your fiancée, significant other, business partner and/or elected representative to get these genetic tests done as soon as possible. This is for informational purposes only and is not a medical diagnosis. Consult with your doctor.

Researchers theorized that the AVPR1a linked to pro-social and anti-social behavior in prairie voles might be a factor in human behavior. They discovered that certain genotypes in the promoter region of the AVPR1a gene corresponded with "Benevolent behavior" and "Universalistic behavior" on various personality tests and that those same genotypes corresponded to altruistic behavior in a game they called "the dictator game". These results were published in the journal Genes, Brain and Behavior.

I am rather skeptical that this test will deliver reliable match-making information, but the whole suite of research I link to is a buffet for thought about the Objectivish bugaboos of altruism, social metaphysics and selfishness . . .

_______________________________

** for a flavour of the ramifications, check out the reference list accompanying the paper Neural Substrates of Decision-making in Economic Games.

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William,

I see some real promise.

"Will you stop nagging? It's time for some kickass genetic engineering! I just made you an appointment. Let's go!"

or

"Why did you sleep with that guy? You never used to like him."

"He slipped a Spanish robot fly in my drink and I just couldn't control myself."

:)

Actually, joking aside, this does look fascinating. For some time now I have had a rough figure of 80/20% in my mind as to individual/species values and behavior. I have been thinking biologically and this kind of thing corroborates it. I am also leaning in the direction of reflecting this division in ethics. It will be interesting to see what averages are arrived at after some of the testing.

Michael

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For some time now I have had a rough figure of 80/20% in my mind as to individual/species values and behavior. I have been thinking biologically and this kind of thing corroborates it.

Forgive me, but I don't know what you are referring to. Do you mean the AVPR1a polymorphism suggesting a heritable 'altruism'?

If so, what do you think of the work that transformed the polygamous voles into nice mates? I am guessing that you suggest 80% of individual values/behaviour are without significant input from genetics or are not heritable at all, and that species' values/behaviours are heritable to the rate of 20%.

This begs the question of what you mean by individual/species values and behaviour, and how one would differentiate between particular values/behaviours.

I am not quite sure what you mean by thinking biologically (as opposed to culturally, perhaps?), and also don't know what part of your thinking is corroborated by my post . . . sorry to be so thick and lost.

I am also leaning in the direction of reflecting this division in ethics. It will be interesting to see what averages are arrived at after some of the testing.

Ummm, I am extremely thick and lost now. What testing of what hypothesis?

I am intensely interested in the issues and research I remarked upon in the lead post. If you want to discuss with me, that would be great; please add some specificity to your comments when you get some time.

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Somehow this seems to take the romance out of courtship.

Good!

Ba'al Chatzaf

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William,

Man is a rational animal. Vole is an animal.

When studies are made with animals, the results do produce insinuations for human beings.

My 80-20 division is merely a speculation that man's mental normative faculty contains slightly more than a cognitive and emotional base, one that genetic studies might help us understand.

After all, man has made a splendor of creation in all fields and a holy mess of the world at the same time. I happen to be of the view that a short circuit in the brain is not pre-programmed for the disgraceful part to happen, yet it keeps happening. I believe (and this is still speculation) that when the alignment between innate mental characteristics and volition becomes distorted through trying to make one side act like the other, a short circuit does result and Pandora's box opens.

So my thinking is going in the direction that our survival mechanism, as Objectivists call the mind, evolved not only to serve survival of the individual, but also survival of the species. Since individuation is much greater with a conceptual faculty than with any other life form, see a preponderance on the individual side, my 80% in the 80-20 thing.

One problem I detect in Objectivist metaphysics is the acceptance of the idea of species right before taking it back. The form this takes is, "Human species exists, BUT... (fill in the blank where it is denied)." In my division, I am speculating that urges like altruism (in the biological, not philosophical, sense) are part of the species values (survival of the species) part of our brains. Studies in genetics are beginning to show signs that this is so in animals. Thus if our minds normatively contain survival as an individual and also include a small slice of survival as a species, our ethics should openly reflect this in the same proportion.

I should have been clearer and I will read your post and link in more depth (I admittedly skimmed it because I was super-busy when I saw it) and get back more specifically on it.

Michael

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So my thinking is going in the direction that our survival mechanism, as Objectivists call the mind, evolved not only to serve survival of the individual, but also survival of the species. Since individuation is much greater with a conceptual faculty than with any other life form, see a preponderance on the individual side, my 80% in the 80-20 thing.

There is no evolution "for the survival of the species." The concept is rejected by biologists, see Ernst Mayr's What Evolution Is. What biologists call "altruism" is action on behalf of relatives that share one's genetic makeup. In effect, if you can save two or more offspring or four or more nephews of reproductive age at the cost of your own reproductive success, such an action is likely to pass on one's genes. This is far from altruism in the proper sense. Biologists use the term more as a matter of fashion than of precise meaning - a mistake with regrettable consequences. Altruism in biology is no more altruism than Homo floresiensis is a Hobbit. It's a mistake to draw serious conclusions from lose and trendy language, even if the speakers are biologists.

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So my thinking is going in the direction that our survival mechanism, as Objectivists call the mind, evolved not only to serve survival of the individual, but also survival of the species. Since individuation is much greater with a conceptual faculty than with any other life form, see a preponderance on the individual side, my 80% in the 80-20 thing.

Altruism in biology is no more altruism than Homo floresiensis is a Hobbit. It's a mistake to draw serious conclusions from lose and trendy language, even if the speakers are biologists.

I can't claim to understand Michael's thoughts at the moment, but look forward to some lucid expositions of the species/individual survival mechanishm/mind comments.

With altruism, Ted, and its "proper" meaning -- I have found that evolutionary biology studies altruistic behaviour because at first glance it doesn't make evolutionary sense. If the drive of the organism is to survive and reproduce, why would any organism make a habit of sacrificing any of its own success at life for the success of another? Darwin, in the Descent of Man, was clearly puzzled by altruistic behaviour in light of natural selection, believing that any such behaviour, if heritable, would not likely survive in societies -- such supposedly noble, other-directed behaviour he thought would die out over time, as its primary actors could not pass on an altruistic inheritance in the same numbers as other more purely selfish behaviours. This remains the puzzle, with solutions ranging from group selection to kin selection to reciprocal altruism . . . to the current research into the neurology of altruism, and the varied studies linked to in my post above.

I suggest you read the useful paper by Ebstein et al, which covers their own work with the AVPR1a receptor, and also offers a good overview of recent work.

What I get out of this paper is a strong sense that genetic differences under study undergird a whole suite of pro-social, generous, benevolent, cooperative behaviour -- it can certainly be argued that the suite of behaviours is not altruism at all, but I don't think that undermines the significance or interest in the work. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I would be very interested in your comments on Ebstein et al as well as the whole notion that the Dictator Game concerns 'altruism' in any way.

I am sure you will find a lot of interest in the Ebstein paper, since it covers both the vasopressin receptor as well as oxytocin receptors, and more intriguingly, reports on associations between the two neuropeptides and autism, musical memory, dance (!) and so on.

If the vasopressin receptor gene polymorphisms don't actually correlate with 'true' altruism, we can at least argue about the force of genetics on so-called pro-social behaviour.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has some interesting statements on biological altruism, somethat seem to contradict Ted's understanding of loose and sloppy terminology -- I recommend this page to OL readers for a careful survey of the general problems and history of the altruism in biology, and so you can see where Ted's antipathy to biological research on 'autism' may be found:

In evolutionary biology, an organism is said to behave altruistically when its behaviour benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself. The costs and benefits are measured in terms of reproductive fitness, or expected number of offspring. So by behaving altruistically, an organism reduces the number of offspring it is likely to produce itself, but boosts the number that other organisms are likely to produce. This biological notion of altruism is not identical to the everyday concept. In everyday parlance, an action would only be called ‘altruistic’ if it was done with the conscious intention of helping another. But in the biological sense there is no such requirement.

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There is no such thing as altruism "in the proper sense". That would be another example of Objecitivsts claiming that only one meaning of a term is the "correct" meaning (namely the definition that Objectivists use).

From the article that William quoted:

In everyday parlance, an action would only be called ‘altruistic’ if it was done with the conscious intention of helping another.

That distinction isn't always so clear-cut, however. Sometimes people behave altruistically in decisions that take a split second, more or less automatically, when there is no time for conscious deliberation. For example a mother who in an emergency saves her child at the cost of her own life or the soldier who throws himself on a live grenade to save his comrades. We should not ignore our biological heritage when analyzing such behavior.

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There is no such thing as altruism "in the proper sense". That would be another example of Objecitivsts claiming that only one meaning of a term is the "correct" meaning (namely the definition that Objectivists use).

From the article that William quoted:

In everyday parlance, an action would only be called ‘altruistic’ if it was done with the conscious intention of helping another.

That distinction isn't always so clear-cut, however. Sometimes people behave altruistically in decisions that take a split second, more or less automatically, when there is no time for conscious deliberation. For example a mother who in an emergency saves her child at the cost of her own life or the soldier who throws himself on a live grenade to save his comrades. We should not ignore our biological heritage when analyzing such behavior.

There is nothing wrong with Objectivist usage and explications on altruism, the moral foundation of collectivism, unless the collectivists are also using it incorrectly, then--so what? After the (political) collectivists have been vanquished the real altruists can emerge from the ruble and ruins and reclaimed their moral identity, whatever that is.

--Brant

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There is no such thing as altruism "in the proper sense". That would be another example of Objecitivsts claiming that only one meaning of a term is the "correct" meaning (namely the definition that Objectivists use).

Luckily, the non-Objectivists outnumber the Objectivists here at Objectivist Living.

Seriously, though, the repellent altruism Objectivists abhor is a compulsive, mandated, coerced policy of putting other peoples' interests ahead of one's own, always and ever.

Rand puts it to us that altruism is a principle: "What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue, and value.''

This is all or nothing, as stated. Elsewhere the principle is stated as baldly: "The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence.''

On the Atlas Society site, Will Thomas further explicates the devilry that is altruism.

[A]ltruism is the doctrine of self-sacrifice, of destroying oneself and one's values for the sake of others. But sometimes scholars and popular writers use the word "altruism" to mean both self-sacrifice and benevolent, non-predatory behavior. So be careful when reading about evolutionary psychology to understand what this word means to the author.

David Kelley writes about the policy of altruism in the essay "Altruism and Capitalism": What exactly does the term "altruism" mean? On the one hand, it can mean nothing more than kindness or common courtesy. On the other hand, it can mean the complete submersion of the self in a larger social whole. This was the meaning Auguste Comte intended when he coined the term.

Leonard Peikoff writes another definition of altruism: Those who reject the principle of selfishness will find in the history of ethics two main alternatives. One is the primordial and medieval theory that man should sacrifice himself to the supernatural. The second is the theory that man should sacrifice himself for the sake of other men. The second is known as "altruism," which is not a synonym for kindness, generosity, or good will, but the doctrine that man should place others above self as the fundamental rule of life.

So, from this sample I can induce a common definition -- altruism is a doctrine, altruism means complete submersion of self in a social whole, altruism means humans must sacrifice themselves for other persons, a doctrinal requirement or duty pledging that other persons must be placed above your self, to the point of your own destruction. So it is almost easy to see how a diehard could reject any and all studies of biological altruism: it is an evil human doctrine, policy or theory, imposed by force, persuasion and shame -- by definition it cannot be a biological behaviour.

This, of course, leads to problems for cross-disciplinary communication.

-- it seems to me that biologists study the behaviour of altruism; they can hardly study the doctrines and principles with their tools of genetics and the Dictator Game.

There doesn't appear to be any overlap between an ugly, evil, destructive doctrine -- and a suite of behaviours that is heritable -- to a mind that has foreclosed the meanings. This is where I can have a little sympathy for the hardline altruist-hating Objectivist who rejects 'altruism research' such as the studies I have noted earlier . . . "they are not studying altruism. That's not altruism. That's not what Rand, Peikoff and Kelley mean by altruism!"

So, if the Objectivists are correct, the study of vasospressin receptors and their genetic variability -- even if such study proves that lengthy promoter regions on the genes map exactly to an increase in pro-social, generous, affiliative behaviour, to the granting of real dollars in the Dictator Game, even if such genetic facts correlate strongly to self-report measures of altruism 'other-directed' behaviour, even if this simple, well-conserved bit of genetic information seems a key to some puzzling behaviours . . .

. . . a hardcore Objectivist may have no interest in the results of the research because of the word (indeed, even softcore Objectivists may take issue with the word, and make careful distinction between ethics and urges, as here: "I find it horrible that altruism is the term these researchers used rather than something like "pro-species urge." They muddy the understanding of the study that way. A biological urge [or reaction] is not a chosen ethics.").

It's not altruism! Yarggggh! Stop the scientists calling it altruism! Yaaarghh! Tell that Dawkins and that Hamilton and Smith and Gintis and those other miscreants that they are all wrong and stupid and bad with words! Tell Google to stop giving two million hits on 'altruism research'! Ayn Rand has done all the altruism research the earth will ever need, you misfits and fools!

______________________________________

So, okay, according to the dicta of O, whatever is being studied is not Altruism. Okay.

But what is it, then, that is described? What is it -- the behaviour that has been correlated to the receptor genes? What is the meaning of co-operative, other-informed, considerate, affiliative behaviour if these kinds of behaviour can actually be found in varying degrees according to the strength/length of promoter genes? What does it say about human nature if a neuropeptide can so dramatically influence behaviour?

In other words, are the suggestive findings to be rejected because some people use the word altruism in a way that frets the Objectivist purist? Will not Objectivist thinkers give a good hard look at the data and its implications for the theory of human nature attributed to Rand?

From the article that William quoted:
In everyday parlance, an action would only be called ‘altruistic’ if it was done with the conscious intention of helping another.

That distinction isn't always so clear-cut, however. Sometimes people behave altruistically in decisions that take a split second, more or less automatically, when there is no time for conscious deliberation. For example a mother who in an emergency saves her child at the cost of her own life or the soldier who throws himself on a live grenade to save his comrades. We should not ignore our biological heritage when analyzing such behavior.

I agree with Dragonfly, of course -- if we ignore our biological heritage, then we are hardly studying ourselves with any rigour. I also see that an Objectivist would make the careful distinction that the 'automated value choice' of a parent saving a child is an ethical decision made in terms of the dear value to the parent.

What it doesn't explain are moving, inexplicable rescues of strangers. What an automated ethical choice doesn't explain is how a blast of oxytocin or vasopressin up the nasal passages can engender trust, affiliation, pair-bonding, and it appears, generosity -- without any value choice machinery intervening. What an automated ethical choice doesn't explain is how genetic differences can render some of us autistic, disempathetic, mistrustful, and, dare I say it -- in tune with the wishes and needs of other people with whom we share the world.

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William,

If the purpose is to criticize hardcore Objectivists (by which, I expect you mean the dogmatic Rand-worshiping snarky orthodox type), it goes even deeper.

If you happen to call a biological urge (as you now call innate behavior that grows and develops non-volitionally) an instinct near such a person, I suggest you prepare your umbrella.

The standard Objectivist terms for biological urges are "whim" and "the given." "Emotion" is often used, too. All of these terms are used with a vague grab-bag meaning defined by a negative, i.e., "irrational." Very little distinction is made between them.

They are definitely looked down on, even in Objectivist literature. They are treated as a sort of Objectivist Original Sin that we are all born with, and we must overcome (or reprogram) through the salvation of consciously adopting volition as out ethical standard. If not, the Original Sin will engulf us in an orgy of whim-worship.

Instinct is flat-out denied as a dirty word and if you use it, you'd better open the umbrella because a barrage of unpleasantness will be forthcoming.

So the problem with dogmatic Objectivists is not an altruistic gene, or a selfish gene for that matter. The problem is ANY gene at all that impacts value choices. Such a gene is denied by some high-profile Objectivists (like at ARI) and that is a shortcoming in thinking that will do (and does) much to hamper the public credibility of the philosophy among independent people who advocate reason.

Michael

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I am largely sympathetic to studies of bonding behavior and the like, and do not question that is has biochemical underpinnings. Thanks, William, for posting the study. I was already familiar with it.

But as for altruism - the term was coined by a moral philosopher and has a very well defined meaning. To use that term in describing kin selection is simply wrong. Altruism in a biological sense would be a lion feeding its cubs to hungry hyaenas, not feeding the cubs of other females in its pride. Biologists who use the term altruism in this sense are simply poorly educated specialists who equivocate when using a technical term outside their specialty. This is done largely out of fashion. Altruism is a latinate word. It makes one's thoughts seem all that much deeper. But in this case, the effect is simply to make the discussion all the more muddled. Kin selection is the furtherance of a biological entity's value in the reproduction of its own genes through the reproduction of its kin which share those genes. This supposed altruism is quite selfish. Actual altruism in biology would have to consist of an animal acting solely to beneift those who did not share its own genes. This kind of behavior is not found to be inherited.

As for those fools who perversely :o complain of Objectivists insisting on using strict definitions, try living according to the pre-Newtonian notion of force the next time you board a powered vehicle. Complain to the medics or the morticians of your results.

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But as for altruism - the term was coined by a moral philosopher and has a very well defined meaning. To use that term in describing kin selection is simply wrong.

For a hardcore Objectivist, then, usage of the word is restricted to the destructive ethical doctrine of humans.

For those foolish, purblind and sloppy biologists, then, their usage of the word is stupid, wrong, etcetera.

Fair enough.

The only problem with this formulation is that the Objectivist usage is not current, and not widespread.** It will be exceedingly difficult to wean biology and its confreres of their dreadful misapprehensions . . .

A useful window on usage are the Answers.com pages on altruism, which start off with a two-flavour descriptive from the American Heritage dictionary, and then proceed through a variety of listings, ranging from psychoanalysis to politics, sociology, religion . . . and a lot more.

Comte's 1851 'proper' meaning is cited from the Dictionary of Philosophy, but the scant references to Rand or Objectivism are found only on the ethics page. Quite a project to overturn so many stupid and incorrect people and reference works.

1. Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.

2. Zoology. Instinctive behavior that is detrimental to the individual but favors the survival or spread of that individual's genes, as by benefiting its relatives.

Actual altruism in biology would have to consist of an animal acting solely to beneift those who did not share its own genes. This kind of behavior is not found to be inherited.

This begs the question of whether this kind of behaviour is a hallmark of human animals. If not, of course it cannot be inherited. If yes, it simply rules out the possibility of any aspect of this behaviour being heritable.

_________________________

** although it doesn't tell us anything about 'proper' usage, a pair of Google searches on "altruism rand" and "altruism biology" returns over a million hits for the biological reference and only 40-odd thousand for the Randian.

Edited by william.scherk

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But William, what is your point? That all discourse should be brought down to the lowest possible denominator? I live in NYC. Do you think I should speak as I hear people on the street? This argument in favor of the sloppy mind baffles me.

But, in any case, kin selection is the most selfish of behavior. The highest value of a biological organism is reproduction. No animal lives for ever, but its gene line may. A parent dying for its offspring is in the interest of its biological self - its genome - just the same with dying for the success of one's kin. Again, altruism only exists where one dies for a non-value. Any supposed altruism in kin selection is only apparent altruism. It is perfectly selfish once one realizes that the animal is passing on the only thing it has, its genome.

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Dragonfly:"There is no such thing as altruism "in the proper sense". That would be another example of Objecitivsts claiming that only one meaning of a term is the "correct" meaning (namely the definition that Objectivists use)."

I suggest that the man who coined the term had a right to give it its meaning. Albert Camus coined the word "altruism" to refer to what he believed to be a moral obligation of individuals to serve others and place their interests above one's own. He opposed the idea of individual rights, maintaining that they were not consistent with this supposed ethical obligation (Catechisme Positiviste).

Barbara

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Barbara; Whatever sins Camus committed he is not responsible for our present understanding of altruism. That was August Comte.

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But William, what is your point?

William, what is your point?

Three points, actually. First, that the meanings of altruism are varied -- the Objectivist meaning applies to the ethics, doctrine, theory, and usages in biology apply to behaviour. Second, that it will be difficult if not impossible to purge the non-O meanings from scientific discourse. Third, that the research into altruism has something to say about human nature.

The first two points seem obvious to me, and uninteresting. The third is what captures my imagination.

Again, altruism only exists where one dies for a non-value. Any supposed altruism in kin selection is only apparent altruism. It is perfectly selfish once one realizes that the animal is passing on the only thing it has, its genome.

I guess where I go off the rails here is that I understand the stock Objectivist meaning of altruism: as an ethical doctrine. But it appears discussion of the cited research founders on the fact that the research is not about ethics, but behaviour. It seems to me that insistence on only one sense of altruism leads to a disinclination to look at human nature. If there is any Keer/Comte altruism found in humans, it is bad. There isn't any other kind of altruism found in the human behavioural repertoire.

I must be misunderstanding -- it is as if all human altruistic behaviour can only be a result of ugly old Comte's ethics. Thus any and all evolutionary/genetic/game theory studies are irrelevant to Comte's ethics, thus there is nothing to discuss. I find this frustrating in this venue.

I suggest that the man who coined the term had a right to give it its meaning. Albert Camus coined the word "altruism" to refer to what he believed to be a moral obligation of individuals to serve others and place their interests above one's own. He opposed the idea of individual rights, maintaining that they were not consistent with this supposed ethical obligation (Catechisme Positiviste).

I think that Barbara means Auguste Comte when she writes Albert Camus.

Certainly we all understand that Comte introduced an ethical framework to go with the coined term. But I don't understand how we deal with the problem: if altruism can only properly describe the ethical system introduced by Comte in 1851, what do we do with the extra meanings that have accrued?

I don't believe that Ted and Barbara have no interest in the research I have cited. I wonder what, if anything, the studies say to them about human nature . . .

To put it in a nutshell, if altruism can only be ramifications of Comte's ethics, how would one study human altruistic behaviour? Does it mean that every time someone sacrifices himself for another, there are only two possibilities? Such as:

-- the self-sacrificial human drank the Comtean Koolaid, and bought into an evil body of thought.

-- the self-sacrificial human chose to sacrifice himself for a/the higher value, and thus did a good thing.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong about this -- but then I need some help in understanding. Are there any other possibilities that occur to the Objectivist?

Now, the most obvious sacrifice is that of a soldier -- even without sketching a situation where the soldier dies on a grenade.

Did the soldier:

-- buy into an evil ethical stricture and thus devalue his own life and survival?

-- served to uphold his highest value?

If the second possibility is put forward as an explanation, what was the highest value? It can't have been 'others,' for that would make him a Comtean dupe.

If anyone with a solid understanding of Objectivism can help me out here, I would appreciate it.

Here is a description from the online Science Encyclopedia, under the heading "Altruism - Comte And Sociology, Darwin, Spencer, And Evolution, Utilitarianism, Christianity And Unbelief, Socialism And Economics."

I found this to offer a fair assessment of the several meanings of altruism, as operationalized in differing fields -- my question remains: can we only discuss altruism as ideology? Is that the only proper kind of discussion? Are all seemingly altruistic actions, by definition, either Comte-infected or properly selfish?

"Altruism" and "altruistic" have been used to refer to at least three different sorts of things: intentions, actions, and ideologies. These three sorts of usage can be grouped under the headings of "psychological altruism," "behavioral altruism," and "ethical altruism." Psychological altruism is any set of inclinations or intentional motivation to help others for their own sakes. Behavioral altruism is defined in terms of consequences rather than intentions: it refers to any action that benefits others (normally with the additional condition that there is some cost to the agent). "Evolutionary altruism" or "biological altruism" is a form of behavioral altruism, since it is defined solely in terms of consequences rather than intentions: it refers to any behavior that reduces the fitness of the organism performing it and increases the fitness of another organism (see Dawkins; Sober and Wilson). Finally, ethical altruism is an ideology stating that the happiness of others should be the principal goal of one's actions. (Ethical egoism, by contrast, states that what the individual should seek above all else is his or her own happiness.)

A frequent cause of confusion has been equivocation between the first two of these three possible meanings—between claims about psychology and claims about behavior. The claim that there is no such thing as true altruism, for example, might be intended to convey the view that, psychologically, no one's motives are ever entirely forgetful of self, since we know that we will receive approval and pleasure as a result of our charitable actions. The reply might be that true altruism certainly exists because many people engage in charitable activities at a cost to themselves, but by shifting from the psychological to the behavioral perspective on altruism, this reply fails to rebut the initial claim. Such conceptual confusion and disagreement over the meaning of altruism marked discussions of it from the outset and persist to this day. (Blum provides one useful and concise discussion of some of the definitional and conceptual issues.)

Edited by william.scherk

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As for those fools who perversely :o complain of Objectivists insisting on using strict definitions, try living according to the pre-Newtonian notion of force the next time you board a powered vehicle. Complain to the medics or the morticians of your results.

That is a good example of a scientific definition trumping the original definition, showing that original definitions are not always the best ones. And is anyone here complaining about Objectivists insisting on using strict definitions? I must have missed that. The only complaint is about Objectivists insisting that their definition is the only correct one. Is the scientific definition of altruism somehow less strict than the Comtean definition?

I suggest that the man who coined the term had a right to give it its meaning.

Of course, but that doesn't give him the right to a monopoly on the meaning of that term some two centuries later.

Further I'll just refer to William's excellent post #21.

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William, the problem of defining altruism is not an uncommon one. For example, if I say I'm an atheist, do I mean I don't accept the idea of a transcendent spiritual being who created the universe? -- or do I mean that I don't accept the idea that there is a bearded old man sitting somewhere in the sky directing my life and everyone else's? I am quite willing to grant the following: that if I'm speaking with or writing to the advocates of the first concept of God, I should name their meaning and speak within that context-- even if only to point out that their definition is ultimately unintelligible; and similarly with the advocates of the old-man-with-a-beard position -- although I might point out to them that there are other definitions they might want to investigate. Therefore, with regard to altruism, I have no objection, when discussing it in the context of biology, to accepting a definition generally used in that field (although I might point out that it is not the philosophical-moral definition); and if I'm discussing it in the context of philosophy, to use the generally Comtean understanding. But in all such cases, the one absolute has to be that the definition of the concept under discussion is agreed upon.

Does this clarify my view?

Barbara

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Oops! In a moment of madness, I attributed the original definition of altruism to [Albert] Camus. Of course, it was Auguste Comte. Thanks to Ted Keer and Chris Grieb for pointing it out.

I have a nephew with the initials A.C. I wonder, is he destined to become a French philosopher?

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The use of the term altruism in biology is fraught with all sorts of errors. Consider this. The motivation for the use of the term altruism in biology was political - a reaction to the overblown claims of Social Darwinists in the other direction:

Wikipedia:

Researchers on alleged altruist behaviours among animals have been ideologically opposed to the social darwinist concept of the "survival of the fittest", under the name of "survival of the nicest" — the latter being globally compatible, however, with darwinist' theory of evolution. Insistence on such cooperative behaviours between animals was first exposed by the Russian zoologist and anarchist Peter Kropotkin in his 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.

Further, the use of the term has led to such absurdities as describing mutual aid as "reciprocal altruism."

Two phenomena, strictly definable, and rationally explicable, occur in nature - kin selection and cooperation. Kin selection is the tendency for behaviors which lead to close relatives forgoing their own success in order to enhance the success of close relatives which share the same genetic makeup. Cooperation is a social behavior akin in man and animals. Neither concept amounts to altruism in any sense.

The use of the term in biology is a politically motivated package deal with no mental economy. No altruism in the Comtean sense occurs except accidentally in nature. Apparent cases of altruism are best described as kin selection and cooperation, just as apparent cases of levitation in nature are best described as flight and orbit. Those who wish to defend the notions of self sacrifice or magic have a stake in misusing terms and sanctioning package deals. Biology has no epistemological need of using such anti-conceptual package deals as "reciprocal altruism" and neither do we.

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