The naturalness of altruism

September 19, 2016


Our culture tends to assume that selfishness is natural, while altrusim requires an explanation. But why?

This question sprang to my mind the other day, while I was reading John Brashaw’s “In Defense of Dogs” (a book I am enjoying greatly – but that’s a different topic). I noticed a statement, made in passing, that whereas biologists do not feel the need to explain altruism in animals when it is directed towards members of the individual’s family, when this is not the case it always calls for an explanation. I get the impression that this is quite a well-established and reasonable view: when an individual helps a member of its family to survive, it is aiding the propagation of some of its genes – half when we help our offspring, one quarter when we help a sibling, one eighth when we help a first cousin, and so on. In contrast, helping a completely unrelated individual does not help the helper’s genes to propagate.

But then I thought: what if the other individual is of the same species? It does not help any of your genes, but that individual shares the same genome – the genome of your species – so you are helping your genome, and therefore your species, to survive. It would be reasonable to expect that species may have evolved whose evolutionary strategy includes altruism towards individuals of the same species, which would have given that species a competitive advantage against other species. This seems to me quite reasonable. But if we start to think that way, then we have to ask: what about helping individuals of other species? All species on Earth share the use of DNA as the gene-encoding substrate, so species that ehlp other species are contributing to the survival of DNA-based life. In fact, when you think of it, it is evident that all life on Earth is cooperating on a global scale, e.g. the plants capture CO2 and release oxygen that we breathe. While DNA-based lifeforms are not in direct competition with other forms of life, they may have been in the past, and in any case the DNA-based living Earth is always competing with the alternative, dead Earth. So again, if different species had not helped each other out perhaps there would be no life on Earth. 

So I think a more reasonable approach is to consider that there is a hierarchy of levels of organisation, and at every level cooperation is essential to make the whole possible (see figure). There are even some intermediate levels, for example oxygen-breathing lifeforms helped each other in competition with sulfur-based ones, for example. So although when you look at the nitty-gritty of individual interactions between individuals there seems to be a lot of competition going round, I think the big story of life on Earth is one of cooperation.

I think this part of a more general theme: in life, in society, and even at the microscopic level in the interactions between myriads of atoms or electrons inside materials, cooperation leads to behaviours that can reinforce themselves and survive, while pure competition leads to and “averaging out to zero”. So what is natural is coopertation and leads to what we observe -be it life on Earth or the magnetic field of a nedymium magnet. 

It is also, incidentally, a nicer way to look at the world than the victorian cut-throat tinge with which natural evolution is often described.


Hysteresis and the European Institutions

November 14, 2015

Readig this interview with Yanis Varoufakis I was pleased to see him mention the phenomenon of hysteresis. Later on, he states

I wish we had never entered the eurozone, which is not the same thing as my saying I think we should get out.

This is exactly the type of comment that it is hard to get across, but it all becomes much clearer when one has an understanding of what hysteresis is. In Varoufakis’ own words:

The path that you take to somewhere, once you get to that somewhere, doesn’t exist anymore. We just can’t turn around upon the original path and find ourselves outside where we used to be.

This observation has important implications in many areas of political discourse. But where does the word “hysteresis” come from?

If you have played with magnets, perhaps as a child, you will have noticed that some metals, when in contact with a magnet, will themselves magnetise. For example, an iron nail stuck to a magnet will itself attract other iron objects. Sometimes this effect remains even after the material is removed: the iron nail keeps attracting other iron objects, so it has effectively become a magnet itself. This is one of the classic examples of hysteresis: the nail has been subjected to an external influence (the magnet) and has changed its properties (become magnetic) with the change remaining even when the original external influence has been taken away.

How does this come about? It turns out that a piece of iron is made up of many “magnetic domains” that is, regions of the sample where the magnetisations of different atoms are all pointing in the same way, leading to a net magnetisation of the domain. The magnetisations of different domains, however, point in random directions, which is why a piece of iron is usually not, by itself magnetic. However, application of an external magnetic field will orient the domain magnetisations, so that they all now point in the same direction. This makes the iron have a net magnetic field of its own. The thing is, the domains actually have lower energy when they are aligned, so when we then remove the applied field they stay in the aligned configuration.
An “energy barrier” was overcome by the external field. Once the system has gone over the barrier, you cannot take things back to the way they were simply by removing the field that took the syste to the state it is in now.

The same happens with the European Union and other international institutions. Their creation overcomes barriers and makes the participating countries change in ways that are irreversible. Going back to the situation where those institutions no longer exist does not take us back to the original state – it leaves us in a different state altogether. I think that is what Varpufakis means when he says that it is one thing to wish that bis cou try nad never entered the Euro, a d a different thing altogether to wa t it to get out. Reforming the Euro zone is tbe only way forward – dismantling it is not an available option anymore.