Altruism, Spite and Heroism

by W.F. Price on July 23, 2012

As James Holmes’ killing spree in a Colorado movie theater is the talk of the nation, a number of reports are emerging concerning the heroic actions of at least three young men, who died protecting their loved ones. All three were killed while shielding their girlfriends from bullets, and given that Holmes was using 5.56mm NATO spec ammunition, which fragments on impact rather than passing clean through its target, quite probably saved the women’s and other people’s lives.

Some MRAs lament the fact that when faced with danger, men so willingly give up their lives for those they are attached to, while others are upset that women don’t have any appreciation for this sacrifice. I noted in Saturday’s post that women do not always like the personal sacrifices they are called on to make on behalf of the tribe, but there are unpleasant sacrifices expected from men as well. And these sacrifices are not demanded only by society, but apparently our own biology. In other words, our instincts sometimes compel us to sacrifice ourselves.

From a simple, individualistic point of view, this doesn’t make sense. Why sacrifice oneself, thereby denying the opportunity to spread one’s seed and propagate one’s genes?

It’s a bit complicated, but it turns out that it does make sense from a genetic standpoint. When I read the stories of the young men who gave up their lives, I thought of the Price equation, developed by George Price (not a close relative of mine) at the Galton Laboratory in the late 60s after he switched careers in middle age to become a theoretical biologist.

Dr. Price was a curious fellow who must have thought a great deal about these issues, because after developing a theoretical basis for altruism he experienced a religious awakening, abandoned his strongly-held atheism and subsequently gave all he had to London’s poor. When he had nothing left to give, he became despondent and took his own life. Perhaps the implications of his work disturbed him, and he couldn’t accept that the roots of human goodness can be regarded as fundamentally selfish from an evolutionary point of view.

Forgotten for decades, Price was brought back to public attention by Oren Harman’s book The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness.

Although the evolution of altruism was not the only thing covered by the Price equation, it is probably the most compelling to laymen, and is most relevant to the point at hand. What this part of the equation does is provide a model for how altruism can actually propagate an individual’s genes despite harming him or even ending his life. This is accomplished by saving those who are closely related, and thereby preserving one’s genes in others through self-sacrifice. Naturally, social creatures such as humans are more likely to display altruistic behavior, as the opportunity for self-sacrifice on behalf of others arises far more frequently than in animals such as snakes.

So, apparently we have evolved to be altruistic, especially toward kin. However, the other side of the coin is something known as “Hamiltonian spite” (theorist W.D. Hamilton was one of Price’s colleagues), which suggests that there is a genetic advantage to harming those who are less closely related than average, even if it costs the individual to do so.

In nature, spite often takes the form of destruction of another’s young. When a new stallion takes over a herd, for example, he will sometimes kill the previous sire’s foals. Lions are known to engage in similar behavior, and it appears to be at work in humans as well, as a single mother’s new boyfriend is statistically far more likely to murder her children than their biological father [feminists often conflate the two to make biological fathers appear more dangerous than they truly are, and new sex partners safer].

One could also make the argument that mass murder, such as that committed by James Holmes, can be motivated by Hamiltonian spite; that is, it is in one’s genetic best interest to destroy those who are unrelated if it provides a selective advantage to one’s kin. Perhaps the best known example of this can be found in the Bible in Judges 16, where Samson brings the roof down on himself and the Philistines, avenging himself and destroying his people’s enemies:

27 Now the house was full of men and women; and all the lords of the Philistines were there; and there were upon the roof about three thousand men and women, that beheld while Samson made sport.

28 And Samson called unto the Lord, and said, O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.

29 And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left.

30 And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.

31 Then his brethren and all the house of his father came down, and took him, and brought him up, and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the buryingplace of Manoah his father. And he judged Israel twenty years.

Samson, of course, was the pre-eminent Hebrew hero, as Herakles – another notorious manslayer – was for the Greeks. His final act of malice did not tarnish his reputation, but rather enhanced it. He exemplifies the duality of heroism as understood by humans: on the one hand selfless and magnanimous, and on the other a terrible foe. And yet there is no contradiction, because Samson fulfills his duties to his people.

In the great scheme of nature, we men are actors in the struggle to preserve our families, our nations and even humanity. It is not a role that must be imposed upon us, but rather one that comes naturally, just as the sacrifice of motherhood comes naturally to women.

And just as there are pleasant and unpleasant aspects of female behavior, the same is true of male.

The lesson that I would like to impart here is that so often, the noblest and the meanest of our traits spring from the same source and ultimately serve the same purpose. The feminists and their allies will point to flaws in the male character, suggesting that man must be fundamentally changed for the world to be a better place. Some men deplore our compulsion to sacrifice ourselves. But when it comes down to it, we are carrying out the will of the collective, and the choices we make are not, as it turns out, always our own.

However, rather than let this revelation undermine our faith in ourselves and science as George Price apparently did, perhaps we can find some solace in the notion that nature itself contains a wisdom and intelligence greater than our own.

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