It is hard to imagine that anyone thinks of goodness as a problem, but evolution pioneer Charles Darwin did. The little worker bees that sacrificed themselves to protect their hives -- the ultimate example of animal goodness -- kept Darwin up at night.
If Darwin's ideas about evolution and natural selection were correct -- and, of course, they are -- then this sort of altruism should be extraordinarily rare in nature. If increased reproduction is the ultimate end all and be all of evolution by natural selection, then altruists should disappear -- and fast.
But they don't disappear, and Darwin was so puzzled by this that he spoke of altruism as a problem that could prove fatal to his whole theory of evolution.
Then a solution to this nasty conundrum hit Darwin like a ton of bricks. Worker bees weren't helping just any old bunch of bees, they were protecting their hive. And their hive contained special individuals: blood relatives.
Blood relatives are, by definition, very similar to one another. So even though the little worker bees may have been giving up their lives, by doing so they were potentially saving hundreds of blood relatives. In modern parlance, we'd say that the worker bees were helping blood kin, because blood kin are genetically related. By helping your blood relatives, you are indirectly promoting the reproduction of copies of your own genes -- copies that just happen to reside inside your kin.
Darwin wasn't the only scientist who was fascinated with the question of the evolution of goodness. His good friend and colleague, Thomas Henry Huxley, was as well. Huxley got himself into a heated argument over whether blood kinship could or could not explain altruism.
Huxley's opponent was Prince Peter Kropotkin, ex-page to the Czar of Russia, naturalist and arguably the most famous anarchist of the 19th century. Huxley argued that all goodness could be traced to blood kinship, while Kropotkin argued that goodness and blood kinship were completely divorced from one another.
Neither was right, as it turned out, but it would take almost a hundred years before a shy, reserved and brilliant British biologist named William Hamilton would settle all the arguments about blood kinship and altruism by coming up with a simple, but elegant mathematical equation.
Instead of asking whether blood kinship is the single factor explaining altruism, Hamilton approached the question from a different perspective. He began by defining three terms: the genetic relatedness between individuals (labeled r), the cost of an act of goodness (c), and the benefit that a recipient obtained when someone was nice to him or her (b). Using some beautiful mathematics, in the early 1960s Hamilton discovered that altruism and blood kinship are not linked by an all-or-nothing relationship.
Instead, what is now known as "Hamilton's Rule" states that altruism evolves whenever r times b is greater than c. In other words, if enough relatives receive benefits from altruism to outweigh the cost of altruism, then altruism spreads; otherwise, it does not.
Phrased in the cold language of natural selection, blood relatives are worth helping in direct proportion to their genetic (blood) relatedness, weighted by how great a benefit they received.
Literally thousands of experiments with both nonhumans and humans show the power of Hamilton's Rule. This little equation is evolutionary biology's version of E = mc2.
Over and over, we see that an analysis of the costs and benefits of altruism, along with the genetic relatedness of interactants, allows us to predict the presence or absence of altruism.
Hamilton's Rule, of course, does not explain all altruism. Another large chunk of goodness falls under the category of "reciprocity." Individuals are sometimes willing to be altruistic to someone now in the expectation that they will, in turn, be helped when we they need it.
Evolutionary biologists have been almost as interested in this type of altruism, as they have been in kinship-based altruism. Amazingly enough, it was Hamilton, along with the political scientist Robert Axelrod and the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, who formalized the models behind the evolution of reciprocity.
Following up on work done by Trivers in the early 1970s, in 1981, Axelrod and Hamilton used the mathematics of game theory to predict when so-called "reciprocal altruism" should evolve. Again, scores of empirical studies have followed up the model.
Reciprocity can be complex, but an evolutionary perspective has cleared the path to understanding, just the same way it did in the case of blood kinship and altruism.
If goodness is a problem, then the answer -- or at the least part of the answer -- can be found in evolutionary biology.
Lee Alan Dugatkin is a professor of biology and distinguished university academic in the biology department at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
Taiwan’s status in the world community is experiencing something really different; it’s being treated like a normal country. And not just a “normal” country, more like a valuable, constructive, democratic and generous country. This is not simply an artifact of Taiwan’s successes in combatting the novel coronavirus. It is a new attitude, weighing Taiwan’s democracy against China’s lack of it. Before I continue, I should apologize to the readers of the Taipei Times. I have not visited Taipei since the opening of the American Institute in Taiwan’s new chancery building in Neihu last year, so I was unprepared for the photograph
On Sept. 27, 2002, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (East Timor) joined the UN to become its 191st member. Since then, two other nations have joined, Montenegro on June 28, 2006, and South Sudan on July 14, 2011. The combined total of the populations of these three nations is just more than half that of Taiwan’s 23.7 million people. East Timor has 1.3 million, Montenegro has slightly more than half a million and South Sudan has 10.9 million. They all are members of the UN, yet much more populous Taiwan is denied membership. Of the three, East Timor, as a Southeast Asian
At a June 12 news conference held by the Talent Circulation Alliance to announce the release of its white paper for this year, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) emphasized that, in this era of globalization, Taiwan should focus on improving foreign language and digital abilities when cultivating talent, so that it stands out from global competitors. I suggest the government should consider building a professional translation industry. If the public believes that there is a relationship between learning English and national competitiveness, then the nation must consider the social cost of language education. This should be assessed to maximise educational effectiveness: Is
Taiwan has for decades singlehandedly borne the brunt of a revanchist, ultra-nationalist China — until now. Ever since Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had the temerity to call for a transparent, international investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has been turning the screws on Canberra. This has included unleashing aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomats to intimidate Australian policymakers, enacting punitive tariffs on its exports, and threatening an embargo on Chinese tourists and students to the nation. A tense situation became more serious on June 19 after Morrison revealed that a “sophisticated state-based actor” — read: China — had launched a