Altruism

Darwin pointed out that natural selection favors behavioral patterns which promote survivability. Suicidal behavior, it would seem, should lead to the destruction of the animal involved, thus preventing it from reproducing. How then, sociobiologists asked, could the behavior of a honeybee be explained when, in stinging a perceived threat to the hive, it rips out its own belly together with the stinger and thus perishes? The answer is that survivability of the genotype, not of the individual, is crucial. Although the individual bee dies, the other members of the hive are genetically identical copies, and the chances for the survival of their genes are improved by the sacrifice of the individual.

Up until recently, survival of a human individual was problematic. People are physically unimpressive animals, with easily torn skin, no claws, weak musculature, and atrophied canines. In primitive times opportunistic out-of-clan cannibalism would have improved survival chances. Thus, such individuals or groups would have been viewed not merely as enemies but as potential food. We are the products of precisely such an evolutionary process.

In all animal species, out-of-family altruism is the rare exception. Survival requires maximum expenditure of effort, and efforts expended on alien genes (dispersed or nonfocused altruism) waste effort and thus, by definition, reduce survivability. Most traits are arranged along a continuum, and altruism is no exception. If a statistical curve were drawn to display diffuse altruism at one end and focused altruism at the other, the result would be radically skewed toward focused altruism – that is, toward immediate offspring.

As man moved into larger groups (tribes), specialization and cooperation went hand in hand. The skew was retained but became less pronounced, and people learned to “live by the rules” and even to feign nonfocused altruism. But the genes really didn’t really change all that much. Homo sapiens’s political history presents an unbroken string of violence, and any objective determination of his coordinates within the animal kingdom places him among the predators.

What sort of a society do we want? To the degree that altruism is determined by our genes, artificial selection could theoretically make it possible to create a social profile skewed toward diffuse altruism. The difficulty of working toward a better society is that such a process necessarily entails effort and even sacrifice on the part of the currently living, who have the power of absolute dictators. All this leads to gloomy conclusions. Professor of human ecology Garrett Hardin wrote that it is futile to expect people to act against their own self-interest,55 and the bioethicist Peter Singer defines “reciprocal altruism” as merely a “technical term for cooperation.

The big question, of course, is how to select for altruism. The same questions must be answered here as for other traits. How to measure? What are the relative contributions of nature and nurture? Which genes come into play and in which combinations? What is the heritability? What combinations of positive and negative eugenic approaches are likely to prove most effective? A good Trekkie, the eugenicist wishes to create a global civilization which does not set consumption as its primary goal but longs for a loving, nonpredatory society that pursues the goal of intellectual enrichment, a society that will achieve a material standard of living as a byproduct of this mentality. Culture and science are seen as goals in and of themselves, not just means to a material end. A high material standard of living is viewed as coming from knowledge and love, not the reverse.

No philosophy of life can logically justify its basic premises. These are givens, the values of the individual or the group. The society that acclaims maximized material consumption as its ultimate goal, that expresses only passing concern for the fate of future generations, that places no value in culture and science other than that which derives from their contribution to consumption, proceeds from a point of reference that cannot be logically overthrown. Such a worldview is the product of an evolutionary process of selection which rewarded clan-specific altruism.

By contrast the eugenics movement advocates a universalism that encompasses all humanity while recognizing the continuity of our species with all other species on this planet, disavowing any exclusively homocentric orientation that would view our fellow creatures as mere fodder for our usage. Eugenicists also perceive a need to be open to genetic manipulation, machine enhancement, and even contact with beings from other planets. The operative phrase of this ethical system is “the greater good,” which is understood more in the spirit of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) than in the hedonistic pronouncements of a Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). The philosophy extends beyond the creature universe to thought itself.

Eugenicists argue that there is much in our genes which may have been advantageous to previous generations and species, but conditions have now changed radically. They maintain that we can either work with nature and achieve utopia, or we can in our greed reject reform and perish. Dangerous? Unquestionably. It is entirely possible, for example, to create people with limited intelligence to perform our manual labor for us, just as we currently import such persons through our national immigration policy. Given our current, still limited understanding, we can easily overestimate our power to predict. And there is the danger of being overly narrow in separating the desirable from the undesirable.




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