Monday, June 08, 2009

I'm a weirdo

Today I walked about an hour out of my way to give blood. The sugar rush from the cookies afterwards has to be felt to be believed. I'm now awaiting receipt of that lovely letter they send out: "Thank you for giving blood. Unfortunately we cannot accept your donation because you have HIV, Malaria, Asian Bird Flu and at least two Hepatitis variants. Consult your local undertaker."

On the way home I saw a very small fledgeling bluetit that had apparently fallen out of its nest and waddled into the road. Needless to say, it was a little bit shellshocked. I picked it out of the road and stuck it in the bushes before it could metamorphose into a very wide fledgeling.

I wasn't able to help an old lady across the road, but only due to a regrettable shortage of old ladies in these parts. This being the North of England, where fat is the fifth food group, they probably all die young of coronaries or acquired diabetes...

These acts of madness are not isolated incidents. Only a couple of weeks ago, whilst on camping, I took half an hour of time out from the festivities to help the bloke in the next pitch put up his tent. And I'm no better in this respect (or worse, I hope) than the average guy on the street.

There was no obvious benefit to me from any of these. Apart from the cookies, the blood donation was just a very long-winded way to get mildly dizzy. Bluetits are not known for their gratitude, and this one gave me nothing but a mildly increased risk of Asian Bird Flu. And one of my (young, female, single) co-campers did comment "oh, you're so nice", but sadly she's not otherwise interested in me.

So why do we do this crazy stuff? Needless to say, I have a theory hypothesis . And it allows me to neatly illustrate a misunderstanding that many people have with evolutionary biology.

The key concept I'd like to introduce here is the difference between proximate and ultimate causes. Humans perform a great many activities that - considered in the short term - are daft in the extreme. Consider the well-known spike in mortality rates for people in their early 20s, due largely to deaths from violence (accident, homicide, suicide).

All told, the human race appears to consist of idiots who waste their time and life expectancy for no better reason than "I felt like it". We shall call this the proximate cause of their actions.

Occasionally people are able to justify their behaviour in terms of some longer-term plan. For example, I work for a financial company because I'd quite like to make lots of money, but I work in pensions rather than investment banking because I would prefer not to die of exhaustion by the age of 30. In this case, we say that the proximate cause is supported by prior causes.

Very occasionally, we can trace our chain of causes all the way back to some very fundamental cause like "I don't want to die young". At this point, logic has to get off and hop - as David Hume pointed out, you can't reason from "is" statements to an "ought" statement. I reckon that these low-level goals are hardwired into me by evolution, so the ultimate cause of my actions is reproductive fitness.

But what about situations, such as giving blood, where I myself can't see any link between action and reward?

Well, the important thing to realise is: just because I can't see a link, doesn't mean it ain't there. Anyone who put my life under a high-resolution microscope might observe that, in giving blood, I've probably endeared myself to many of my co-workers. By making this comparatively harmless sacrifice, I've demonstrated that I'm a good, upstanding, altruistic chap who is welcome to marry their sister.

Now it's important to note that none of this went through my head. I didn't think "hmm, let's manipulate my colleagues' feelings"; what I thought was "ooh, there's a blood drive on, I can go help save someone's life". My impulse to do good appears to be completely disconnected from any sense of the consequences.

But of course it's not disconnected at all. The impulse is a side-effect of how my brain is structured, and of how it was programmed when I was young (which is more or less a side-effect of how other people's brains are structured). My brain structure is controlled by my genes. My genes have spent 3.7 billion years avoiding being wiped out, and they've achieved this by producing survival machines (like me) that are comparatively successful.

The result is that our actions - our unthinking, instinctive, intuitive actions - are quite often smarter than we realise. No matter how dumb the behaviour, there's probably a shred of logic hiding behind it.

In short: maybe one day I'll rescue a baby bird and consequently attract a bird of the human variety.


Dunc said...

Hmmmm... I've seen a lot of arguments like this, and they all smack of panadaptionism to me.

Personally, I'm more of the view that behaviour such as you describe is an adaptively-neutral side-effect of the ability to empathise. Empathy has clear adaptive value, but that doesn't mean that all of its repercussions are also adaptive in themselves. Merely having the ability to empathise means that "it's nice to be nice", so any further justification is unnecessary. We perform acts of kindness because they make us feel good (in the direct, sex-and-chocolate sense of "feel good" rather than the sense of "the feeling of being good"). And they make us feel good because we empathise with the recipients of our goodness - even the non-human ones.

Good to see you back, by the way. :)

Lifewish said...

Merely having the ability to empathise means that "it's nice to be nice"

I call Hume's guillotine - there's no obvious reason why having empathy should predispose us to act nicely. It only seems that way to us because we happen to have both empathy and predisposition.

Even so, I think what you're saying is more or less what I was saying: the rescuing of baby birds may be no damn use, but the predilections that lead to that behaviour are generally positive. Spandrels ahoy!

Lifewish said...

Oh, and it's good to be back too. Tubelessness sucks.

Dunc said...

there's no obvious reason why having empathy should predispose us to act nicely

I disagree. Empathy means that we feel (to some extent) what other people are feeling. If you see someone suffering, you feel their suffering. If you see someone happy, you feel their happiness. Therefore making other people happy makes us happy.

Now, you can argue that this isn't a firm basis for a system of ethics, which is my understanding of Hume's objection (something is not necessarily morally correct simply because it makes us happy), but it doesn't alter the basic psychological facts of the matter.

I'm quite happy for you to argue that "empathic altruism" (for want of a better term) is not necessarily a good basis for a system of morality (the "is-ought problem"), but that is not an argument against the empathy-altruism hypothesis itself. It's just an argument against inferring too much from it.

Lifewish said...

I see what you're describing as a two-step process. Firstly, my brain creates a model of another critter's emotional state. Secondly, emotions "leak" from the model into my own mind.

To me, this second step seems anomalous - the brain doesn't usually work like that. For example, our brains can model the path of a flying baseball without wanting the ball to like being batted.

So it's valid to ask why empathy works this way. Of course, it might turn out that there's some highly-technical reason that means the leakage is inevitable. But it certainly isn't obvious.

Dunc said...

I don't think that's how empathy actually works. I subscribe to the mirror neuron hypothesis. Modelling the other's emotional state cannot be separated from experiencing that emotional state, because it's the same neural circuitry involved in both.

Lifewish said...

OK, that would come under the heading of "highly-technical reason that means the leakage is inevitable". If so then fair enough, and thanks for the wikilink.

Still, considering the amount of trouble that overempathising causes, I am slightly surprised that such an implementation would be viable unless there were some hidden benefits. I could be wrong.

At this point, I think I need to write another post to give us some more argument-fodder. Brb.

Dunc said...

It's not so much "leakage", it's that the whole process is the other way around - empathy does not arise from a theory of mind, rather our theory of mind arises from empathy. As for the "hidden benefits", it has all sorts of fundamental survival advantages, from enabling very basic social learning in infancy through to stuff like avoiding getting into fights with some guy twice your size or being able to tell whether that sabre-toothed tiger thinks you're lunch. Sure, there are downsides too, but they don't tend to be immediately fatal. Indeed, without it we probably wouldn't even be able to recognise other people as people.