Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Readers suggest why we're (sometimes) nice to each other.

How evolution made some of us nice, some of the time.

Readers suggest why we're (sometimes) nice to each other.

Here’s part of one reader’s response to the column on the evolution of cooperation, sympathy, kindness, and all that other nice stuff. For him, Aristotle had some ideas worth considering:    

"Perhaps even more to the point about helping unfit people is from an old guide to the moral life, none other than Aristotle. In T.V. Smith’s text Philosophers Speak for Themselves, Aristotle examines the differences among human acts, especially those which involve the passions (kindness, altruism, etc). I quote: “Just as it is easy to give money. Anyone can do that. But to give money to the right person, in the right amount, for the right reason, in the right way and at the right time, this is not what anyone can do. Nor is it easy. The point here is that the act of giving is not in itself praiseworthy. It is common among many people and animals. But it takes a wise and prudent man to know the proper way of giving which involves many nuances. This of course is something that biology and evolution will not tell us much about. Such abilities are only found in humans which, if we are to understand the poet and the philosopher, are not inherited but remain a difficult and never ending struggle to arrive at the good in all of its forms.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

The unfit are only unfit if we make them so by acting out our lower instincts. When we use our reason and the enlightened human values that we alone possess among all species, then we are indeed fit to care for the unfit. No mere animal here but a fully human person who knows how he or she differs from all other life forms.

I firmly believe in evolution, as species adaptation through genetic mutation. I do not believe that this simple formula explains or reveals the endless capacities of humans to remake and refashion themselves and their place in the tree of life."

I absolutely must write a column about the scientific definition of fitness in order to provide some clarity about this much-abused term. That will be coming soon.

The scientists in interviewed do not think the evolution of kindness is a simple formula at all. I recently spoke with Harvard biologist Martin Nowak, who is the co-author of a new book, Supercooperators, along with Roger Highfield. Nowak uses game theory as well as evolutionary biology to understand human cooperation, and one important point he makes is that we aren’t always all that super when it comes to cooperation.

“People find loop holes when they can make more money at the expense of the system,” he said. Cooperation is a delicate thing in our species. “There’s always a tension – cooperation is never completely stable.” Our ability to cooperate in big groups tends to oscillate, he said, so we get events like the financial crisis. “There’s always the temptation to cheat.”

On that, he’s unlikely to get any argument, though Nowak is at odds with most of the evolutionary biology community over the evolution of cooperation, thanks to a controversial paper, mentioned in the column, refuting the more standard picture. Not that he or anyone else proposes a simple formula.

Nowak, in his book, describes five mechanisms by which nature endows us with the ability to cooperate. There’s kin selection (instinct to help your own close relatives), reciprocity, indirect reciprocity (you can get a good reputation from being good), group selection and spatial selection (neighbors helping neighbors).

All these mechanisms show up in other living things, he said, but he believes only humans are endowed with all five.

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at Reach Planet of the at

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