Can Altruism Trump Selfishness To Save Democracy And Planet Earth?

Evolution of man. 



Donald Trump has fired all the scientists in the White House. He’s made working conditions in the federal agencies so intolerable that many smart, educated people have simply quit. That seems to be by design. Trump thinks he can turn the United States of America into a nationalist, fascist dictatorship, and influence other countries around the world to follow his lead. He clearly believes that a majority of human beings are too ignorant and stupid to stop him.

I’m sorry to say it, but it appears to be working. What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

While Trump has no respect for most science, he is a student of propaganda, or at least he listens to a few experts on the science of propaganda like Steve Bannon and Vladimir Putin.

What if we marshaled the resources of the sciences such as evolutionary biology and genetics, the social sciences like psychology, sociology, political science, communications research and cultural evolution, along with what we now know about scientifically objective journalism and even art, and ramped up an evolutionary machine of information, so to speak, to stop Trump and others of his ilk from coming to power or remaining in power around the world?

If our mission is to save democracy and the planet, we are clearly going about it in the wrong way. We are not evolving our information system fast enough, even though it seems to be evolving too fast for most people to be able to keep up with it.

Traditional media, traditional politics and new social media built on a business model that is right out of the scientific literature on biological and psychological selfishness is making things worse, not better.

“The problem with Facebook in general is a kind of fragmentation of information, together with a use of social affinity around tribal relations. Memetic tribes,” says Joe Brewer, Founder and Executive Director at Center for Applied Cultural Evolution. He’s from Missouri but now lives in Columbia, where I interviewed him last week.

“Environmentalists tend to share content from other environmentalists,” Brewer says. “We form these spreading patterns similar to synapsis firings in the brain that have coherence around that psychological theme.”

He led me to look up the research of British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. He is best known for formulating Dunbar’s number, a measurement of the “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships.”

Even Facebook admits that most people can only handle keeping up with about 300 friends, although the limit on a Facebook friend page is set at 5,000.

Dunbar says the problem is the ability to manage information about other people’s reputations.

“Gossip is equivalent to monkeys grooming each other, building relationships,” Brewer says. “Social grooming was (Dunbar’s) term. Gossip and say bad things about people. When it breaks down, date rape on college campuses, serial killers, psychopathic dynamics are not going to be regulated.

“What we don’t have is monitoring and regulation of behavior in coherent and functional groups. Because of that, and there’s a whole bunch of structural reasons, incentives, the business model and how to make money, the use of market segmentation, the ability of people to spread misinformation and manipulate things … there are lots of pieces involved,” he said.

“One of the things you could see that would start to remedy it is to go back and ask, how did complex human groups do this in the past? Hunter-gatherer societies, which were beautifully complex,” he says. “Quite a lot is known about various, different ones.”

For now, traditional media and traditional politics and existing social media are failing to create a common shared narrative about the world, something that daily newspapers did in their way for more than 100 years. This was amplified in the last half of the 20th century by local and national television news, when in hindsight things seemed to work pretty well, with the exception of obvious ad hoc crisis that came along to upset the economic and social balance. People had to come together and work together to tackle these crisis, like the way people mobilized to fight Adolph Hilter’s nationalistic, narcissist, Nazi drive to take over the world by promoting a myth of the Anglo-German superior race.

We now seem to be on the verge of causing a fatal biological and psychological mutation in human evolution that could literally bring on the end of life as we know it on planet earth.

It is time to hit the pause button, and stop letting rednecks in MAGA caps and college dropout computer programmers, some high on meth, run this world. There are millions of educated, smart people in this country and around the world who could make a difference, if someone would do a meta analysis identifying the problems and outlining the solutions.

There is no way I can do this all by myself, on the limited budget we are currently operating with. So this is a call for help. Help me get the funding to build a new social media app to compete with Facebook and create a successful pro-social media system to literally teach people the difference between the selfish gene, or the trait of selfishness, and the altruistic gene, or the trait of altruism, that is necessary for our future survival.

This is the first in a series of articles to begin putting together all the information that could save us in one place, written in a way most people should be able to understand it, I hope.

The Science of Selfishness and Altruism in Human Evolution

Imagine a hypothetical tribe of early people, say Homo Erectus, on the African savannah or the European plains about 300,000 years ago with females picking berries and males hunting wild game by day, gathering in caves by the fire by night at the foot of mountains. They had evolved from apes and figured out how to make fires, and to carve sharp tools out of stones and even make early knives and spears.

But the largest males acted like selfish bullies, killing off other males who tried to compete with them for food and sex with the most attractive females.

While the females tried to build coalitions of altruistic members to help the tribe survive, the selfish males ultimately won and doomed the species to extinction.

Could this be what happened to the newly discovered “ghost species” found in West Africa?

In a neighboring village, a tribe of Homo sapiens had developed similar hunting, gathering and tool-making skills, but their brains were somehow large enough to realize that working cooperatively together in groups was essential for their survival, say in ambushing and killing antelopes, gazelles and wildebeest. We know this behavior goes back even as long as two million years ago.

Humans hunted for meat 2 million years ago

So they got together and kicked the most selfish bullies out of the tribe, which almost certainly doomed the existence of the selfish bully. The wilds of Africa and Europe were dangerous places then.

The Descent of Man

In this famous passage from The Descent of Man, published in 1871, Charles Darwin perceived a fundamental problem of social life, and articulated a possible solution. The problem is that for a society to function, its members must perform services for each other. Yet members who behave “for the good of the group” often put themselves at a disadvantage compared with more selfish members in the same group.

If so then, how could altruism and other pro-social behaviors evolve? The authors ask this in Evolution: Survival of the Selfless, by David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson.

The solution, according to Darwin, was that groups containing mostly altruists have a decisive advantage over groups containing mostly selfish individuals, even if selfish individuals have the advantage within the group.

Darwin’s insight would seem to provide the basis for understanding the evolution of social behavior, a field known as Sociobiology, a field largely pioneered by a scientist from Alabama who goes by the name of E.O. Wilson. See, there are smart folks in Alabama. It just takes a lot of publicity to prove it to the world.

Sociobiology, a field of biology I discovered while conducting research into media effects on public opinion in a Ph.D. program for Science Communications and Environmental Sociology in Tennessee in the 1990s, has generated its share of controversy over the past 50 years. There’s been lots of in-fighting in the scientific community by, you guessed it, selfish scientists who want to carry the mantle of being the most prominent descendent of Darwin to carve on their tombstones.

There has not been much in the way of altruism in this science, although that is beginning to change in some of the fields of inquiry spawned by it, including Cultural Evolution. I’ll have more to say about that in a followup piece. For now let’s get to the bottom of this selfishness versus altruism business.

The controversy erupted in full public view in 1976, when biologist Richard Dawkins published a book called The Selfish Gene, which built upon the principal theory of George C. Williams’s Adaptation and Natural Selection from 1966.

Dawkins used the term “selfish gene” as a way of expressing the gene-centered individual view of evolution (as opposed to the views focused on the organism and the group), popularizing ideas developed during the 1960s by W. D. Hamilton and others. From the gene-centered view, it follows that the more two individuals are genetically related, the more sense (at the level of the genes) it makes for them to behave selflessly with each other.

A lineage is expected to evolve to maximize its inclusive fitness — the number of copies of its genes passed on globally. As a result, the argument goes, populations will tend towards an evolutionarily stable strategy, presumably with a balance between selfishness and altruism, although the author did not make that explicit. That is now the subject of the social sciences such as Evolutionary Psychology, Sociology and Cultural Evolution.

The book also introduced the term “meme” for a unit of human cultural evolution analogous to the gene, suggesting that such “selfish” replication may also model human culture. Memetics has become the subject of many studies since the publication of the book, something articulated as a virus passed through the population. Although these days memes are pictures shared around on Facebook, demonstrating how science can be distorted and even misrepresented in popular culture.

In the foreword to the book’s 30th-anniversary edition, Dawkins said he “can readily see that [the book’s title] might give an inadequate impression of its contents” and in retrospect thinks he should have taken Tom Maschler’s advice and called the book The Immortal Gene.

In July 2017 a poll to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Royal Society science book prize listed The Selfish Gene as the most influential science book of all time.

But another group of scientists, including E.O. Wilson and Edward Sloan Wilson, took issue with the individual and kin selection theory of natural selection and shifted the paradigm toward multi-level group selection as the way genes are passed on.

In The Social Conquest of Earth, published in 2012, the entomologist E. O. Wilson contended that although the selfish-gene approach was accepted “until 2010 [when] Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and I demonstrated that inclusive fitness theory, often called kin selection theory, is both mathematically and biologically incorrect.”

Wilson got together with some mathematicians to disprove the work of his opponent, and to verify his approach, which first came out of his work studying social behavior in ant colonies.

In Chapter 18 of The Social Conquest of Earth, the authors describe the deficiencies of kin selection and outline group selection, which Wilson argues is a more realistic model of social evolution. He criticizes earlier approaches to social evolution, saying: “…unwarranted faith in the central role of kinship in social evolution has led to the reversal of the usual order in which biological research is conducted. The proven best way in evolutionary biology, as in most of science, is to define a problem arising during empirical research, then select or devise the theory that is needed to solve it. Almost all research in inclusive-fitness theory has been the opposite: hypothesize the key roles of kinship and kin selection, then look for evidence to test that hypothesis.”

“People must have a tribe,” Wilson explained. “Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, and then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong.”

The Wilson from Alabama had been influenced by his research into the social behavior of ant colonies, where millions of worker ants and army ants are sacrificed for the sake of the survival of the colony and the species.

It sort of reminds you of what happened in the American Civil War, when hundreds of thousands of soldiers were sacrificed for the tribes representing the North and South. Perhaps the armies of the South were full of selfish bullies and the North had more altruistic soldiers working better together to save the Union.

Anyone who has ever thought about group sports should see right away the accuracy in this science, although there is no doubt redneck comics will argue with it, and people still caught in the spell of religious dogma might put forward a different opinion about it. Tribalism in sports is relatively harmless.

But it may not be so harmless in public affairs and politics. People tend to pick a political party and stick with it to the bitter end.

Notice a meme floating around a lot on Facebook among Democrats these days: “Vote Blue No Matter Who.”

“Different parts of the brain have evolved by group selection to create groupishness,” Wilson says.

This sounds like a term right out of the comedy news show Stephen Colbert had on the Comedy Channel playing a conservative before he took over The Late Show on CBS and became his real self. But can there even be a modicum of doubt about this science now?

Other authors say Dawkins failed to make some critical distinctions, in particular, the difference between group selection for group advantage and group selection conveying individual advantage.

“In a group, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals,” Wilson argues. “But, groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals. Competition between groups selects for pro-social groups. Competition within groups tend to undermine groups. The rest is commentary.”

In other words, there are matters of fact, as explained in Philosophy 101, and matters of opinion. Facts are objective. Opinions are subjective. There is no such thing as alt-facts, although they tend to be popular these days.

With multilevel group selection, groups containing mostly altruists have a decisive advantage over groups containing mostly selfish individuals, even if selfish individuals have the advantage over altruists within each group.

You can go online and read all about this for hours or days, as I have, and find jewels like this: E.O. Wilson examines the role of group competition in evolution

That group loyalty, Wilson said, “is at the root of both some of our finest and darkest impulses — our willingness to sacrifice for others and the xenophobia that underlies aggression against outsiders.”

Clearly the white nationalists who support President Trump strive to belong to a group that supports their race. They behave altruistically to protect each other, and you know as well as I do that Republicans tend to stick together to promote a few key issues, while Democrats argue with each other about every damn thing.

Wilson and other scientists have traced humankind’s rise from 6 million years ago when our ancestors split from the ancestors of modern chimpanzees. Early humans, Wilson says, largely plant eaters, radiated out into several species until one, Homo habilis, began to increase the proportion of meat in its diet, developing a larger brain.

A more recent ancestor, Homo erectus, had a brain that was larger still, lived in camps, foraged for food, had a division of labor, and was likely the first truly “eusocial” human, Wilson says, that through cooperation and teamwork, formed superorganisms. With groups formed, competition among them put natural selection to work, through attacks, vengeance raids, and other acts of violence.

“As William James said, ‘History was a bloodbath.’ We know this was true in history and prehistory,” Wilson said. “Groups consisting of altruistic individuals beat groups consisting of selfish individuals.”

Watch this play out in the Democratic Primary going on now.

Groups of Democrats who support different candidates are competing with each other to win the chance to take on Trump in the general election. These groups tend to be full of selfish, ambitious individuals and more altruistic individuals. The selfish individuals with the most ambition may indeed win out within the groups for leadership roles, but in the end, the group working the best together with the most altruism and less narcissism should win the day.

It remains to be seen whether selfishness or altruism will win in the end in this election cycle.

Is it possible that the power of propaganda on social media has overdeveloped the power of the selfish gene, like shooting it up with steroids? How can altruism compete in this disturbed environment?

To Come
In followup articles, we are going to do our best to explain how Existential Anxiety can be used by corrupt selfish evolutionary “cheaters” to create the conditions for the rise of Authoritarian Dictatorships. We will explore the problems of social media, especially Facebook, and show how it creates a more selfish world where narcissism can thrive and undermine democracy. Then we will explain how a new social media app could be created to take on Facebook for at least 4-5 percent of its business, the part dealing with real news and social and political activism. By getting many of the influencers in society onboard with this, we may be able to move public opinion in the right direction.

This series of articles are a work in progress, and we reserve the right to edit them in the future much like an open source page on Wikipedia as new information comes to light.