Search This Blog

Thursday, 11 March 2010


As God clothes the naked, so shall you,
As God visits the sick so shall you
As God loves mankind, so shall you.

This phrase mirrors phrases in countless other scriptures, holy books and self-help guides. The ethics of reciprocity is a moral fundamental born from social interaction itself. It also illuminates the biological and hence, psychological ability for empathy.
It is degrading to say that any wise man was wise for having thought of it. Nor is it meaningful to label such a fundamental as exclusive to one’s religion.
It is as simple as, feeling sad when another fellow is grieving for his deceased loved ones. As straightforward as feeling indignant when a friend is incarcerated on false accusation. As fundamental as understanding punishment, pain and suffering, that we revolt at its use (even our own) towards another human being.
In this sense, this particular moral, is not a learned moral, but is typical and universal of human beings, and probably of all social animals others than ourselves.
You could also see this particular moral as being a social tool, to weed out selfish individuals who might be leeching from the benefits of the group. Knowing who does not reciprocate is hence a useful gauge of one’s cooperation, trustworthiness and personality. In social groups where this is a universal fundamental, it would therefore be most advantageous for all members of the group to exhibit reciprocation. “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours”, so to speak.
Allow me to broaden your perspectives further, biological entities are typically selfish, or euphemistically, act upon self-interest. This is a truism. Because if we had evolved to not be selfish (excluding animals in social groups for the moment), then we would have died out long ago, for we would be outcompeted by our rivals quite simply. True altriusm, is not an Evolutionary Stable Strategy (forgive the biology jargon), because if selfish individuals arose in  a population of selfless beings, the selfish individual will outcompete, outlast and reap all the benefits from all the suckers around it.
In this sense, the selfish individuals will breed and proliferate in much greater number. And the selfless individuals who are short-changed, breed and proliferate to a smaller degree. Through generations of differential reproduction, the selfish individuals will start to overtake and become the predominant group of the population. Eventually, the last sucker might be short-changed so badly, that it might eventually perish under the competition.
You might be thinking, how does selflessness manifest then? Why are certain people constantly being portrayed as selfless, friendly and exceedingly helpful? Surely, that couldn’t possibly exist, if my explanation were true.
My explanation still stands because of two things.
I assumed the earlier population to be that of a non-social animal. Social groups deal with adversity in a different way. The group works in favour of both the individual’s needs balanced with the group’s. It might seem valuable, in certain situations to have one’s own needs to be fulfilled with the compromise of “social tribute” to the group in the form of reciprocations, sharing etc, than if one worked alone, and risked not satisfying one’s own basic needs due to the lack of help.
Also, while being selfish would certainly be a winning strategy in a group of friendly people, that might not really sit well with the members of the group. We all recall incidents or experiences with people where our friendliness or help have been taken without reciprocation, or even more preposterously returned with a stab in the back, or more mildly, taken for granted.
Equity, justice, fairness. These values arose from simple social and biological interactions such as empathy and reciprocation.
Secondly, and of more controversiality, is the different kind of reward that reciprocation brings – happiness. We couldn’t have relied on such a complex moral issue on pure rationality only. We must definitely have evolved a neurological (biological) way of rewarding our brain whenever such behaviour is carried out.
This might seem blasphemous that altruism and selflessness are performed in self-interest or pleasure, but allow me to explain. Many biological and social functions are dealt with biochemically. Thirst and hunger are biochemical. Libido is dealt with by the sex hormones. Happiness is biochemical (Recent studies have shown that an addiction to alcohol, smoking, exercise is due to an increasing de-sensitivity to the “happy chemical”, otherwise known as dopamine, which gives us the feeling of euphoria and temporary happiness). Empathy is a mixture of both neurological and biochemical inputs. How these are exactly elicited, is still being studied.
So, quite simply, the feeling of happiness and contentment associated with altruism and all those happy volunteers proud to have done their part is an adaptation to ensure that we keep to this social function. Morality seems so much less sacred as it is philosophy. It is biology.
In a nutshell, we are selfless, because we are selfish but sacrificed a bit of the reward for more certainty in the success of survival
How do social groups form then?
Obviously, social groups are exclusive entities, in that the members satisfy a certain list of club entry requirements. For humans, we might be at the extreme end of the spectrum, when it comes to the club entry requirements, but we’re not alike from other social animals in other respects. Most groups are formed out of this mutual cooperation or altruism. But what are the criteria?
In biology, there exist two hypothesis to explain altruism - Kin Altruism and Reciprocal Altruism. Kin Altruism is straightforward. Our family, or closely related family members, share many genes in common, due to our relatedness. Hence, it would be advantageous, for the gene (and the individual carrying it) to help members of one’s own family. This may appear to dilute familial love, but as I mentioned, familial love might be similar to how happiness manifests – as a biochemical, psychological and neurological phenomenon, for purposes I have already mentioned. If my body didn’t tell me via this means, that familial love is such a wonderful thing, I might end up treating family members as competition, which fundamentally, really is. It’s either a social family group helping the whole bunch of the same combinations of genes, or the chance that the entire group may be outcompeted by others or by each other and perish. Again, it’s perhaps a trade-off of probabilities.
Reciprocal Altruism has already been elaborated earlier. To summarize once more, it basically means, that I would “scratch your back, if you will scratch mine”. It can also be put in more crude terms, that one is selfless, only in one’s self-interest, and in the case of groups, in the group’s interest, as well.
So, in summary, social groups probably formed from reasons of increased survivability relative to the hardships of individual survival. They evolved in species that found it increasingly difficult to manage at the level of an individual and might be due to kinship, or simple benefits of mutual cooperation. Society or social groups is merely one of the many strategies that the biodiversity of this Earth has employed. Co-evolved with social behaviour is biochemistry, neurology, psychology, all of which manifested in our ability for emotion, empathy, sympathy, which then doubled as social “tools”.

(c) Sangbid Kundu