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Friday, June 22, 2007

Aunts, Fish, Ants,

ATBozzo links to me here after writing

He invokes Francis S. Collins to name a scientist who would argue that physical processes cannot account for the universal presence of moral impulses like altruism, “the truly selfless giving of oneself to others” with no expectation of a reward. How can there be a naturalistic [i.e., evolutionary] explanation of that?

Fish, let alone Collins, shouldn't need an economist to answer, "easy."

Thanks for link. Fish is, well fish. The possible evolutionary explanation of altruism is quite different from the selection of sickle trait. The generally favored view is called kin selection". The argument is that if we help a random person (more generally organism in our species which we meet) we do something very different from helping a random organism in our species, since we are more likely to meet our kin than our non relations.

If there is an altruism allele, it can be selected. Acts of pure altruism reduce he chance of reproducing (or else it wouldn't be pure altruism) but increase the chance of reproducing of the beneficiary. If the beneficiary is the brother of the altruist, he has a 50% chance of carrying the allele which is therefore 50% selected via the act of altruism, a nephew, niece aunt or uncle 25% a cousin 12.5% etc.

The "result" of very early theoretical population biology that true altruism is not selected was based on the assumption, made for simplicity, of random matching so an altruist was as likely to help someone who was unrelated as she was to help a first cousin.

Now, an allele which causes us to recognize the exact degree of relation to another organism and callibrate our altruism would drive out simple altruism in evolution. It is impossible to imagine how exactly such an allele could do this (especially if you go back a few million years and consider our ancestors who couldn't talk or count or anything).

An implication of the evolutionary theory of altruism is that extreme altruism will occur among animals who are more closely related to their sisters than to their daughters. The most extreme altruism possible from an evolutionary point of view is to refrain from even attempting to reproduce -- like a worker ant or worker bee. They are (as you guessed) more closely related to their sisters (the queens) than to their possible offspring sharing 3/4ths of genes not just 1/2 because males of the species are haploid (only 1 copy of each gene like our sperm or women's ova).

For someone who has seen a worker ant to claim that altruism proves that evolutionary biology can't explain everything is for someone to make a total fool of himself.

A few minutes of research on the topic would have made it clear to Fish that he was defending a statement which is ignorant or dishonest (Collins may know the human genome but is less familiar with the population biology literature than with the incentives for scientists to be overly humble about the power of science). I dare say it probably did, since defending dishonest ignoramuses is what Fish likes best.

Now Fish's claim is that materialistic reductionistic science has failed (so far) because the molecular basis of altruism is not known. This is a much more reasonable claim than the claim that altruism could not be selected (Bozzo responds very effectively back at marginal utility). I will just add some Nit Picklering noting that Fish neglects to mention the observed effects of oxytocin (the hormone which triggers labor) in voles.

Dave Barry is a more reliable source for information on the subject (search for vole or muskrat and, sad to say, The Economist is not run by altruists).

update: Dave Barry might be a bit too unserious so let's go to the Wikipedia

Oxytocin (C43H66N12O12S2) AKA CYIQNCPLG means trust, falling in love, maternal love and (female) monogamy. to make males monogamous you have to use vasopressin (a slightly heavier molecule for a harder problem).


Anonymous said...

April 12, 2005

Truth in the Wild: A Great Dad That Wanders Wide

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. - In the gathering darkness four biologists wearing headlamps surround an unconscious wolverine that is flat on its back, legs akimbo. They check a transmitter implanted in its belly and fit another larger one on a collar around its heavily muscled neck.

Then they inject the animal with the antidote to the drug that knocked it out, and place it in a box trap. An hour or so later, when the lid of the trap is opened, the animal clambers out and runs into the forest.

Every two hours the position of the wolverine - known as M-1 - is fixed by a geo-positioning satellite and recorded in the collar. A few weeks later the wolverine is recaptured, and a record of its travels is downloaded from the collar into a laptop. The result confirms data that the researchers have accumulated over three years. Wolverines are wildly peripatetic.

"The hallmark of the wolverine is its insatiable need to keep moving," said Dr. Jeff Copeland, principle investigator of the research project, and a wildlife biologist at the Rocky Mountain Research Station of the United States Forest Service in Missoula. "I don't know any animal that moves like this every day. Nothing close."

The wolverine, a creature of the northern forests that resembles a small bear, is legendary for its strength and ferocity.

"Picture a weasel," Ernest Seton Thompson, the naturalist, wrote in 1909, "and most of us can do that, for we have met that little demon of destruction, that small atom of insensate courage, that symbol of slaughter, sleeplessness and tireless, incredible activity - picture that scrap of demoniac fury, multiply that mite some 50 times, and you have the likeness of a wolverine."

An Austrian biologist named Peter Krott, who raised wolverines and wrote about them in his 1959 book "Demon of the North," said one of his animals, named Rosa, got caught in a leg hold trap and traveled back home on three legs for weeks carrying the steel trap in her jaws, before collapsing on his doorstep.

John Krebs, a biologist in British Columbia who studied wolverines for seven years and is writing up his research, said that in the 1930's a wolverine kept chewing into a log meat locker at a mountain lodge and dragging slabs of meat out. Leg hold traps were set. One day the trapper surprised the wolverine at work. With traps on three legs it was still trying to drag a carcass.

The tales that have accumulated about the animals would have it that one wolverine can pull a moose carcass on its own. Mr. Krebs documented a 35-pound wolverine dragging a mountain goat several kilometers and across a major highway.

"Determined," said Mr. Krebs. "That describes them best." ...


Anonymous said...

When I am done with some writing, I will add, but this is nice and should be just the beginning of the discussion.

Oh, why is Brad DeLong determined that I shall be blinded with small print? Grumble.


Tom Bozzo said...

Robert, thanks again for your comments. In the invocation of Collins, I'd thought that Fish was driving at a bigger (faulty) implication that things that don't make individual organisms better off -- hence the focus on "pure" altruism -- are conundrums for evolutionary explanations. So I brought up the sickle-cell trait as an obvious counterexample where not every individual gets increased reproductive fitness.

Very good points about the colony insects and especially oxytocin. Once those pesky scientists find chemicals with demonstrable effects in areas supposedly beyond materialistic understanding, IMHO the mystical account is in big trouble.

Anonymous said...

Please note: Juan Cole points out that suddenly Josh Marshall has dicovered al-this and al-that, and others has "run with" what Marshall has discovered.

I only take time for most limited blog reading however and regularly read only Thoma, DeLong, Waldmann and Cole and never Marshall. The New York Times is far more valuable than blogs, of course, and that is what I read thoroughly.

So, I understood on my own likely about 8 weeks ago about the sudden use of al-this and al-that and have pointed it out ever since.

I did not wish Robert Waldmann and other to think I was copying Marshall or Cole with no proper credit. I understood on my own the flooding of "al-s" through Iraq immediately, as the press should have but has not understood.


Anonymous said...

The reason I explain, and hope the explanation is read by Robert Waldmann and others, is that I have needed no sourse other than the New York Times; my parents have needed no other source than the New York Times, and they read no blogs; we have needed only the New York Times to understand from before the beginning how pernicious the idea of war in Iraq and even more so occupation of Iraq was.

Please understand, for all the due criticism of the New York Times, how critical this is. I did not need Josh Marshall to teach me of the flooding of "al-s" through Iraq. Thinking will do and remember what peace means will do.

Marshall and other were evidently unable to understand what war and especially occupation would mean. The problem is with Marchall, then. The problem was how many most sensitive analysts forgot how to think clearly and especially how to understand what peace means.


Anonymous said...

Sorry for the ranting, but I hate this blog format where I cannot even see me prior thoughts. Oh well.

Also, Brad DeLong has continually made his magnificent blog more difficult to read. I go to DeLong less and less because of the smallness of the print and clutter of the screen. Darn.

Why cannot others learn the beauty of Mark Thoma's simplicity?

Now for the magnificent New York Times.


Anonymous said...

Also, others have repeatedly pleaded with Brad DeLong to simplify the screen and clarify-enlarge the type. Darn, darn, darn.


Anonymous said...

Also, I notice that Josh Marshall only learned of the Iraqi "al-s" from "a reader." Can any of these supposed analysts really think or do they only pretend? I am really annoyed. So much for needing Marshall.