Friday, December 18, 2009

Parasites on altruism

Surely one of the most important developments in human evolution has been altruism, which is animals being nice to other animals of the same species. I do not believe it is too much to say that humans are the most altruistic animal species to have ever existed, and that altruism has been one of the most important factors in human evolution.

Individuals in many species have “kin selection” altruism—being nice to other animals that share many of their genes. Some scientists even claim to see it in bacteria, which form altruistic multicellular structures known as biofilms (or slime). And you will find direct reciprocity in many intelligent animal species—one individual helping another, with the expectation of receiving help in return. This type of altruism requires enough intelligence to remember which other animals are reliable altruists and which are cheaters, allowing the cheaters to be marginalized. But it is probably only humans that practice indirect reciprocity, the type of altruism where an individual gets social status for doing nice things to other individuals who will never be able to repay. Natural selection has not only favored indirect reciprocity in humans, but also the emotions that accompany it. That is, in humans, the normal condition is that it feels good to be good, at least to others in your tribe. Throughout recent human history, we have been expanding the horizons of altruism, so that now it feels good to help people who are far away.

Recently, when my wife and I were out walking, we ran across a perfect example of altruism in action. A church youth group was painting over gang graffiti. They were clearly enjoying the work and the knowledge that it was appreciated by the neighborhood. The leaders were particularly happy that they had painted over the graffiti within 24 hours of its origin. They also enjoyed the thought that they were serving God by doing this.

The group was associated with the ministries of Oral Roberts, the preacher who is famous for having sweet-talked thousands of people (including my wife’s paternal grandmother) out of millions of dollars. The Oral Roberts dynasty revels in its wealth, which includes a private jet. For awhile, the privileges included access to the resources of their university, back before Oral Roberts’ son Richard was forced from the presidency of that institution. (I was recently told by a reliable source, but who must remain anonymous, that the jet that Richard Roberts used had marijuana and pornography on it. This information came from a relative of a security officer at Oral Roberts University.)

Here we see loving altruists helping the neighborhood, and helping young people at the same time, but they are also giving money to big-time parasites. It creates in my mind an image of Jesus hauling his cross to the hill while a big fat pope sits on his shoulders.

Have you seen other examples? Of course, from the realm of religion, there are almost more examples than you can count. Perhaps examples from the business world? I can certainly think of examples from my profession (education).

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