The Problem of Altruism: Freudian-Darwinian Solutions by C. R. Badcock (Blackwell: $24.95)
If we have learned anything in the 20th Century, it is that things are much more complicated than we imagined. In physics, the simplicity, precision and knowability of the Newtonian universe fell by the wayside early in this century. Since then, other fields of inquiry, which were not as solid to begin with, have followed suit. Knowledge and truth now appear as elusive as quicksilver. The closer one gets, the more they draw away.
Full appreciation of this paradox has been slow to permeate through the public at large. Politics, for example, is riddled with the notion that every effect has a simple and discernible cause and that every problem has a solution. Op-ed pages are chockablock with columns by writers who see complicated matters simply. People want answers, and they don't want to be told that truth is hard to come by.
One of the most troublesome questions, which people have pondered for thousands of years, is nature vs. nurture. How much of who and what we are as individuals do we inherit from our parents, and how much are we shaped by our environment? The answer is all but unknowable, but it has important philosophical and theological ramifications as well as biological, psychological and sociological ones.
I used to be sure that everything we are is in the chemistry. (In my weaker moments, I continue to think it.) By some mechanism as yet unknown, we are completely determined by our DNA. But it turns out, as I should have known, that that's too simple. So is the opposite assertion, namely, that a newborn infant is a tabula rasa who will be shaped completely by the experiences he is about to have.
As best we can tell, these two elements interact. Genetic predisposition is either reinforced or opposed by experience. A child is neither completely determined nor completely undetermined, though how this works is anybody's guess.
C. R. Badcock, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, tackles this question along with many others in his book, "The Problem of Altruism," which is an effort to reconcile human behavior as understood by Freud with human biology as understood by Darwin. More about that in a moment.
Along the way, he puts his finger on an important shortcoming of the "nature" side of the nature-nurture argument, namely, what he calls "the problem of the gene-behaviour) interface." How does chemistry control behavior? What is the mechanism by which genes are expressed as personality? Badcock writes:
"I do not doubt for one moment that, ultimately, all behaviour has genetic determinants, since it seems likely that anything which an organism does must finally be accounted for by its genes and their interaction with the environment. The real problem lies in trying to show how distinct genetic determinants might underlie specific behaviours in the human case."
This is his argument against sociobiology, which says that human behavior can be understood as the product of evolution, that we act in ways that benefited our ancestors in the struggle for survival and that organisms that behaved differently were not as successful and died out. To Badcock, sociobiology is too simple an explanation.
As its title indicates, his book struggles with one of the major sticking points of sociobiology and Darwinism: how to account for altruistic behavior. If individuals have always acted selfishly, thereby maximizing their chance for survival, how can the spirit of self-sacrifice have survived? Where does charity come from? How can people act in the interest of others, as they sometimes do?
Badcock's analysis is complicated, and his prose is convoluted and studded with jargon. I'll not try to summarize it, in part because I'm not sure that I can. But after wading through the thicket, Badcock's conclusion turns out to be simpler than the argument that precedes it. Drawing on a finding of contemporary game theory, Badcock concludes that altruism is not self-sacrifice. In fact, it benefits the altruist. It is in an organism's self-interest to be altruistic.
"Cooperation, whether between individuals or classes, yields more to both parties than competition," he writes.
A couple of years ago, Robert Axelrod explored this situation at length in his book, "The Evolution of Cooperation," which reported on his computer-aided study of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Badcock makes frequent reference to Axelrod's work.
The Prisoner's Dilemma goes like this: Two accomplices are arrested and charged with a crime. They are questioned separately and are not allowed to communicate. They are both told that if neither of them confesses, they will each get 30 days in jail. But if one confesses and the other doesn't, the confessor will go free and the holdout will go to prison for 10 years. However, if both confess, they will both go to prison for 8 years.
What should each prisoner do?
Each man will realize that the best strategy is for both of them to remain silent, thereby incurring a minor 30-day sentence. But if the other man is going to be silent, then the first prisoner should confess, which will allow him to get off scot-free. But both prisoners come to the same conclusion, recognizing that the best strategy is to confess as long as the other guy is going to keep quiet. But if they both confess, they both go to prison for eight years.
Axelrod's contribution to the analysis of this paradox was to invite people to come up with different strategies for the prisoners, which he then set to competing with one another in a computer-run tournament.
Some strategies always cooperated, some strategies always defected, and some defected at random or according to a statistical model. The strategy that won was called Tit for Tat. It had a very simple rule: Cooperate at first and then do to your opponent whatever he did to you in the last round. If he cooperated last time, cooperate this time. If he defected last time, defect this time.
These results, which are still reverberating through the world of game theory, provide the basis for Badcock's conclusion that cooperation is self-serving behavior and competition is not. "Uncomplicated reciprocity (tit for tat) promotes higher final payoffs to both parties than mutual competition to defect," he finds.
A few pages later, he broadly applies this conclusion to human affairs. Only reciprocity, he writes, "can sustain the level of economic growth, technological innovation and scientific progress which modern populations come increasingly to expect."
Badcock dispenses with "the problem of altruism" by concluding that it's not a problem. Altruism benefits everyone, he says. But it's a big leap from a computer simulation of a parlor game to a theory that encompasses biology, psychology and sociology. The world isn't that simple.