Roger Scruton on altruism

I’ve just started reading philosopher Roger Scruton’s new book The Soul of the World, in which he defends the transcendent against the scientific conception of reality. Chapter 3 contains an interesting but wrong-headed argument to the effect that evolutionary explanations of human altruism are superfluous, because altruism can be explained perfectly well in moral terms. It’s particularly interesting in light of our discussions on the Critique of Naturalism thread, so I thought I’d share it:

An organism acts altruistically, they tell us, if it benefits another organism at a cost to itself. The concept applies equally to the soldier ant that marches into the flames that threaten the anthill, and to the officer who throws himself onto the live grenade that threatens his platoon. The concept of altruism, so understood, cannot explain, or even recognize, the distinction between those two cases. Yet surely there is all the difference in the world between the ant that marches instinctively toward the flames, unable either to understand what it is doing or to fear the results of it, and the officer who consciously lays down his life for his troops.

If Kant is right, a rational being has a motive to obey the moral law, regardless of genetic advantage. This motive would arise, even if the normal result of following it were that which the Greeks observed with awe at Thermopylae, or the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Maldon. In such instances an entire community is observed to embrace death, in full consciousness of what it is doing, because death is the honorable option. Even if you don’t think Kant’s account of this is the right one, the fact is that this motive is universally observed in human beings, and is entirely different from that of the soldier ant, in being founded on a consciousness of the predicament, of the cost of doing right, and of the call to renounce life for the sake of others who depend on you or to whom your life is owed.

To put it in another way, on the approach of the evolutionary psychologists, the conduct of the Spartans at Thermopylae is overdetermined. The “dominant reproductive strategy” explanation and the “honorable sacrifice” explanation are both sufficient to account for this conduct. So which is the real explanation? Or is the “honorable sacrifice” explanation just a story that we tell ourselves, in order to pin medals on the chest of the ruined “survival machine” that died in obedience to its genes?

But suppose that the moral explanation is genuine and sufficient. It would follow that the genetic explanation is trivial. If rational beings are motivated to behave in this way, regardless of any genetic strategy, then that is sufficient to explain the fact that they do behave in this way. And being disposed to behave in this way is an adaptation — for all this means is that people who were disposed by nature to behave in any other way would by now have died out, regardless of the reasons they might have had for behaving as they did.

…it illustrates the way in which evolutionary explanations reduce to triviality, when the thing to be explained contains its own principles of persuasion.

There are lots of interesting and intertwined errors here. Dissect away!

289 thoughts on “Roger Scruton on altruism

  1. keiths,

    What? Are you disputing the biology or have you misunderstood what I wrote? I allow the possibility that something I wrote may not be clear.

  2. Alan,

    What? Are you disputing the biology or have you misunderstood what I wrote?

    Neither. I simply disagreed with you.

    keiths, paraphrasing Scruton:

    The ants aren’t reasoning about their sacrifice, so their behavior requires a genetic explanation.

    Alan:

    Well, no. Sterile worker and soldier castes are not the carriers of the genome. The queen is. So loss of sterile caste members is of no consequence, genetically.

    The altruism of soldier ants does require a genetic explanation, as you now acknowledge.

    It was just a mistake, Alan. No big deal.

  3. Alan,

    Absolutely no big deal. But what was the mistake?

    You disagreed that the soldier ants’ altruism had a genetic explanation, and you cited their sterility as the reason.

  4. keiths,

    At least he’s avoided ant metaphors. Maybe the Spectator edited his piece down a bit. It’s mercifully short. 🙂

  5. keiths,

    No big deal or anything but my point about ants and altruism is just simply that the word “altruism” makes no sense in relation to the biology of ants.You appear to be arguing semantics against my biology. It’s the biology I’m primarily interested in (Though communication is important too.)

  6. Alan,

    No big deal or anything but my point about ants and altruism is just simply that the word “altruism” makes no sense in relation to the biology of ants.You appear to be arguing semantics against my biology.

    No, I’m arguing against your mistaken biology.

    I wrote (paraphrasing Scruton) that the behavior of the soldier ants requires a genetic explanation:

    The ants aren’t reasoning about their sacrifice, so their behavior requires a genetic explanation.

    You disagreed:

    Well, no. Sterile worker and soldier castes are not the carriers of the genome. The queen is. So loss of sterile caste members is of no consequence, genetically.

    That’s bad biology. The loss of sterile caste members does matter genetically, because it influences the likelihood that the colony will survive and that the queen will continue to reproduce.

    You recognized your error after posting a later comment:

    There’s no feed-back. All the genes do in a sterile caste worker is define the phenotype of that worker. It’s somatic. The only thing that can affect the alleles of a population of ants is differential survival of queens.

    ETA Oh sure, the colony with the feistiest soldiers is going to give the best chance of survival to its gene pool store – the queen.

    The first part of that comment is wrong, because there is feedback. You recognized your mistake and corrected yourself in the ETA.

    There’s no shame in making mistakes, Alan, as long as you learn from them.

    I think we’re in agreement now. Scruton was correct to insist that the ant behavior (even of the sterile castes) must have a genetic explanation.

    He’s right about that, but wrong, in my opinion, to insist that genes are superfluous in explaining human altruism.

  7. keiths,

    Ah, that’s a little clearer.

    This statement is fine and I stand by it.

    Well, no. Sterile worker and soldier castes are not the carriers of the genome. The queen is. So loss of sterile caste members is of no consequence, genetically.

    A soldier dies. No loss. A queen dies, the colony has lost its germ line.

    This statement is fine and I stand by it. It neither conflicts with nor corrects my previous statement.

    There’s no feed-back. All the genes do in a sterile caste worker is define the phenotype of that worker. It’s somatic. The only thing that can affect the alleles of a population of ants is differential survival of queens.

    I added the ETA to clarify that I was referring to the germ line and that colony structure and function (it’s phenotype) are the entity that is under selective pressure.

    ETA Oh sure, the colony with the feistiest soldiers is going to give the best chance of survival to its gene pool store – the queen.

    No error. I was clarifying for you.

    But I accept that my brevity allowed the misunderstanding.

  8. keiths: There’s no shame in making mistakes, Alan, as long as you learn from them.

    It’s little digs like these, Keith, that reduce your appeal as an interlocutor.

  9. keiths:

    There’s no shame in making mistakes, Alan, as long as you learn from them.

    Alan:

    It’s little digs like these, Keith, that reduce your appeal as an interlocutor.

    It’s not a dig, Alan. I absolutely believe that. You misunderstood the biology, and there is no shame in that. It’s your refusal to admit your mistake that is annoying.

    Alan:

    This statement is fine and I stand by it.

    That’s unfortunate, because your statement is wrong.

    keiths, paraphrasing Scruton:

    The ants aren’t reasoning about their sacrifice, so their behavior requires a genetic explanation.

    [Emphasis added]

    Alan:

    Well, no. Sterile worker and soldier castes are not the carriers of the genome. The queen is. So loss of sterile caste members is of no consequence, genetically.

    [Emphasis added]

    You disagreed that the soldier ants’ behavior has a genetic explanation, and you gave a bad reason for that disagreement.

    It was a mistake. Why are you making such a big deal out of it?

    Same thing with your later comment:

    There’s no feed-back. All the genes do in a sterile caste worker is define the phenotype of that worker. It’s somatic. The only thing that can affect the alleles of a population of ants is differential survival of queens.

    There is feedback. The behavior of the soldier ants influences the likelihood that the colony will survive and that the queen will continue to reproduce.

    You misunderstood the biology, Alan. That’s all. It was just a mistake, not a catastrophe.

  10. I’ll make one last effort. The point I was making is that “altruism” is not what allows sterile workers to be expendable. The genetic feedback is on the germ line carried by the queen. The genes that happen to reside in individual workers are not passed on and have no evolutionary effect on the germ line.

    Of course the collective fitness of an individual colony (the phenotype) is what results in differential survival allowing selection to work. Workers contribute to the phenotype, not the germ line.

  11. keiths: You disagreed that the soldier ants’ behavior has a genetic explanation…

    Goalpost move spotted!

    ETA

    If it makes you happy, I’ll withdraw “Well, no”.

  12. Alan,

    Unless “Well, no” means “Well, yes”, and unless “There’s no feed-back” means “There is feedback“, then you misunderstood the biology.

    The ants’ behavior does require a genetic explanation, and there is feedback from the behavior of the sterile castes to the reproductive success of the queen.

  13. keiths: there is feedback from the behavior of the sterile castes to the reproductive success of the queen.*

    * Emphasis mine.

    Yes, of course. Now you get it.

  14. Alan,

    Which of the following contradictory statements is correct?

    Yours:

    There’s no feed-back. All the genes do in a sterile caste worker is define the phenotype of that worker.

    Mine:

    …there is feedback from the behavior of the sterile castes to the reproductive success of the queen.

  15. keiths: …there is feedback from the behavior of the sterile castes to the reproductive success of the queen.

    I find that to be an awfully un-useful construction.

    The behavior of the drones affects the reproductive success of the queen, but the sterile individuals are no more altruistic than your finger is altruistic.

  16. keiths:

    …there is feedback from the behavior of the sterile castes to the reproductive success of the queen.

    petrushka:

    I find that to be an awfully un-useful construction.

    The behavior of the drones affects the reproductive success of the queen, but the sterile individuals are no more altruistic than your finger is altruistic.

    There are three confusions here:

    1. Drones are fertile. It is the workers and the soldiers who are infertile.

    2. I didn’t use the word “altruism” in my “construction”. My statement is true regardless of the word you use elsewhere to describe the behavior of the sterile castes.

    3. The behavior of the soldier ants is altruistic by the accepted definition of altruism in evolutionary biology. Check any evolutionary biology textbook.

    From the Wikipedia article on animal altruism:

    Altruism in animals is not identical to the everyday concept of altruism in humans. In humans, an action would only be called “altruistic” if it was done with the conscious intention of helping another. But in the animal behaviour sense there is no such requirement. Indeed, some of the most interesting examples of altruism in animals are found among species that are presumably not capable of conscious thought, e.g. insects. For the animal biologist, it is the consequences of an action for reproductive fitness that determine whether the action counts as altruistic, not the intentions, if any, with which the action is performed.

    Indeed, animal altruism is striking evidence in favor of Dawkins’ selfish gene hypothesis. The genes that cause a soldier ant to fight and die for the colony are of no benefit to that soldier ant herself, but they do benefit the queen, and those same genes are carried by the queen (or by the sperm she has stored).

    The genes get themselves into the next generation via the queen, at the expense of the soldier ants who also carry them. Altruistic individuals, selfish genes.

  17. I would not consider individuals not competing to pass on their genes to be “individuals” in the biological sense. They are more like cells or appendages.

    This is a case where generalizations based on anthropomorphic metaphors leads to confusion.

  18. petrushka:

    I would not consider individuals not competing to pass on their genes to be “individuals” in the biological sense. They are more like cells or appendages.

    An infertile man or woman isn’t a biological “individual”, but more like a “cell” or “appendage”? That doesn’t make sense. There’s more to biology than reproduction, even if reproduction is what matters most to evolution.

  19. There’s more to biology, but not more to evolution.

    If there were a biological caste of humans that were infertile from childhood as a result of some regular regulatory process, then yes, they would be a bit like an appendage.
    An appendage to the species.

    Metaphors are not definitions. They are useful figures of speech. They have uses and they have limits.

    If you want accuracy, just say what happens and skip the metaphorical language.

  20. Imagine two queens A and B who are identical except for a couple of mutations. Queen A has a mutation that has no effect on her own behavior, but causes her soldier ant offspring to run around aimlessly in circles when the colony is attacked. Queen B has a mutation that also has no effect on her own behavior, but causes her soldier ants to be 5% more effective than nonmutants in defending the colony against attacks. Assume that the mutations have no other effects.

    If you come back in ten years, which mutation will have prevailed? Will there be more new colonies with queen A’s mutation or with queen B’s mutation? The answer should be obvious: queen B’s mutation will be more successful.

    It should also be obvious why. As I put it earlier:

    …there is feedback from the behavior of the sterile castes to the reproductive success of the queen.

  21. If you understand why queen B’s mutation will be favored by natural selection despite having absolutely no effect on her own behavior, then you understand me.

  22. petrushka,

    Metaphors are not definitions. They are useful figures of speech. They have uses and they have limits.

    If you want accuracy, just say what happens and skip the metaphorical language.

    You just used a metaphor: sterile caste members are like cells or appendages. And before that you used another metaphor: individuals “competing to pass on their genes”.

    You see how hard it is to “skip the metaphorical language”?

    And clunky, too. Try expressing those concepts, or the selfish gene concept, in completely non-metaphorical language. You’ll quickly understand why people continue to use the metaphors.

    As you say, you have to be aware that the metaphors have limits. Mary Midgley’s famous mistake was to think that Dawkins’ “selfish genes” were consciously selfish. Denyse O’Leary’s even funnier mistake was to think that “the selfish gene” was a single gene that had yet to be discovered.

    “Caste” is a metaphor. “Worker”, “soldier”, and “queen” are all metaphors. Do you really think we should drop the metaphorical language?

  23. petrushka:
    I think one could make an analogy with the behavior of drones to the behavior of cells.

    I thought of trying to communicate better with Keith using a similar analogy. Keith lives in a primitive society where he has to fight rivals for a mate. In a fight, he could lose an eye. Inconvenient but if he kills his rival he gets the girl. If he loses his testicles, it’s a different story.

    As Keith points out, perhaps you meant to say worker rather than drone but the analogy holds regarding treating the colony as an ur-organism when considering the level of selection.

  24. keiths,

    Both could be considered correct. I’m happy with mine. Your statement is also open to a correct interpretation. It unfortunately blurs the phenotype/genotype distinction that I am emphasizing.

  25. keiths: The behavior of the soldier ants is altruistic by the accepted definition of altruism in evolutionary biology.

    Oh really?

  26. keiths:
    petrushka:

    An infertile man or woman isn’t a biological “individual”, but more like a “cell” or “appendage”?That doesn’t make sense.There’s more to biology than reproduction, even if reproduction is what matters most to evolution.

    Of course there’s more to biology than sex. There’s death too. Should we write a complete biology text book in each comment?

    Oh and food…

    I’ll come in again.

  27. keiths: Imagine two queens A and B who are identical except for a couple of mutations. Queen A has a mutation that has no effect on her own behavior, but causes her soldier ant offspring to run around aimlessly in circles when the colony is attacked. Queen B has a mutation that also has no effect on her own behavior, but causes her soldier ants to be 5% more effective than nonmutants in defending the colony against attacks. Assume that the mutations have no other effects.

    If you come back in ten years, which mutation will have prevailed? Will there be more new colonies with queen A’s mutation or with queen B’s mutation? The answer should be obvious: queen B’s mutation will be more successful.

    Well put! You understand the biology. The argument you are trying to have is semantic.

  28. keiths: Do you really think we should drop the metaphorical language?

    No, we should embrace it. I advocate dropping “natural selection” and substituting “environmental design”.

  29. [Discover Mag.]What about the classic kin-selection example, worker bees sacrificing themselves for their queen? How else can you explain that?

    E. O. Wilson:

    The best way to think of what has been called altruism in social insects is to return to an individual level of selection: that is, queen to queen. Think of the workers as robots and near-replicants of the queen herself. From the beginning these subordinate replicants are just extensions of the queen. It really is queen against queen, since they are the only ones that produce offspring.

    link

  30. Alan Fox: No, we should embrace it. I advocate dropping “natural selection” and substituting “environmental design”.

    My own thinking is almost entirely metaphorical and non verbal. I think attempts at perfect verbal precision fail.

  31. petrushka: My own thinking is almost entirely metaphorical and non verbal. I think attempts at perfect verbal precision fail.

    For important communication, you can’t beat a drawing. I’m always reaching for pencil and paper.

  32. petrushka: My own thinking is almost entirely metaphorical and non verbal.

    I read an interesting piece some time ago that basically says, yes, that’s true but not necessarily in the way you think. So initially you’d have “thought in words” but over time created shorter and shorter representations for each word/concept internally until eventually it’s *all* shorthand and you don’t perceive yourself to “think in words”.

    Apparently this is something that not everybody does/can do.

  33. My thinking is very concrete. as Gregory disparagingly points out.
    I “feel” almost kinesthetically, things moving about. sometimes I’m handling or manipulating them.

    But back on topic, if a population is comprised of genetically identical clones, then individuals cannot be altruistic in the biological sense, because their individual deaths cannot affect whether their genes are passed on.

    The “problem” for evolution arises if a genetically unique individual sacrifices itself for the greater good.

  34. petrushka,

    …if a population is comprised of genetically identical clones, then individuals cannot be altruistic in the biological sense, because their individual deaths cannot affect whether their genes are passed on.

    An individual acts (biologically) altruistically if it promotes the reproductive success of others at its own expense. Whether those others are genetically identical to it, related to it, or completely unrelated is irrelevant to the fact that the behavior is altruistic.

    A teenager who sacrifices her life to save her identical twin is acting altruistically in both the biological and the psychological sense. The fact that her twin is genetically identical does not negate the altruism.

  35. keiths: The fact that her twin is genetically identical does not negate the altruism.

    But it does make the motivation somewhat suspect. I say there should be a law against people getting in situations where the sacrifice of others may be required to save them. To avoid confusion over biological terms.

  36. keiths: An individual acts (biologically) altruistically if it promotes the reproductive success of others at its own expense.

    What are the “others” when everyone is genetically identical? this kind of “altruism” poses no problem for evolution, because selection works on one or two individuals, and the death of a clone does not interfere with the clone’s genes being passed on.

    The problem in population genetics arises if an individual has a mutation causing it to sacrifice itself for the good of the population. That mutation doesn’t get passed on unless the individual reproduces before dying.

    This is why I suggested that clones could be considered to be like cells or appendages rather than reproducing individuals. The reproducing individual is the entire hive, and only the queen and her mate are required to live long enough to reproduce.

  37. petrushka: if a population is comprised of genetically identical clones, then individuals cannot be altruistic in the biological sense, because their individual deaths cannot affect whether their genes are passed on.

    I think I should point out that it does affect the chances of an allel getting passed on, or, in case of iteration, the average number of offspring being passed on. As Dawkins pointed out in his work The Selfish Gene, the genetic relatedness between individuals is usually not the only “consideration” in an act of altruism – whether that consideration is a conscious one or an instinctive.

    And a second thing is that especially when the population consists of clones and one individual clone sacrifices some of his own life-expectancy or progeny-prospects in order to increase the chance of sibling clones living and reproducing, it is called altruism – in the biological sense. The definition given by keiths earlier is exactly how ethologists (those who study animal behaviour) would define altruism.

    Which of course does nothing to deny human acts of heroism and true self-sacrifice.

  38. petrushka: What are the “others” when everyone is genetically identical?

    In biological terms one could define an individual as each genetic “channel”, ie. each unit that produces seamen or egg-cells. I agree that this does make describing a worker-ant as an individual somewhat problematic.

    petrushka: the death of a clone does not interfere with the clone’s genes being passed on

    It may affect the chances of it both negatively and positively, depending on circumstances.

    petrushka: if an individual has a mutation causing it to sacrifice itself for the good of the population. That mutation doesn’t get passed on unless the individual reproduces before dying.

    On the other hand, if the same mutation has already spread to a part of the population (most likely its closest relatives), then the carrier sacrificing itself will increase the chances of that allele spreading even further. There’s no need to assume that such a mutation will automatically cause the unfortunate demise of the carrier before it gets a chance to reproduce: some such mutants will be bound to be the lucky ones who never have to make such a choice.

  39. petrushka,

    What are the “others” when everyone is genetically identical?

    The others are distinct individuals who happen to be genetically identical, just as the two teenagers I mentioned are separate but genetically identical.

    this kind of “altruism” poses no problem for evolution, because selection works on one or two individuals, and the death of a clone does not interfere with the clone’s genes being passed on.

    Right. Altruism is most likely to evolve among genetically identical individuals, less likely among related individuals, and least likely among unrelated individuals (unless it is reciprocal). That’s the point of the robot experiment I linked to above.

    Hence Haldane’ s famous quip that he would lay down his life for two brothers or eight cousins. Or, by extension, one identical twin.

    This is why I suggested that clones could be considered to be like cells or appendages rather than reproducing individuals. The reproducing individual is the entire hive, and only the queen and her mate are required to live long enough to reproduce.

    The ants in a colony (and the bees in a hive) are closely related, but not clones.

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