Sunday, 27 February 2011

Altruism and Selfishness

Hi guys, I'm back! You might be wondering why I didn't blog this weekend. Well, you can blame "hardupgamer" for my absence. Good ole hardup posted Civ 5 on his blog and after a bit of mulling over I decided to give it a shot Friday night. This is the first time I have left my room and my desktop since (apart from toilet breaks).

I thought civilization 4 was addictive but civ 5 takes it to a new level. And now I have nothing to show for my weekend except a very pissed off girlfriend who feels sorely neglected. meh civ5>>gf :P

She probably thinks I am being selfish, which brings me to my next topic and the meat of this post.


It's a bad trait right? A vice? Or is it?
It's in us for a reason, whether as a survival trait bred into us by natural selection or a god (or satan) given quality.

If you believe the "good book" then selfishness is a very bad thing which we would be better off without. Selflessness is preached and it is what every human being should strive to ascertain.

I completely disagree. I'm with evolution on this topic. Now it's fairly obvious how selfishness benefits an individual. An individual being selfish actively gets more resources than others who are not selfish and with those resources, has a higher chance of passing his selfish gene (as opposed tothe non selfish gene) onto the next generation.

But then how does altruism exist? Presumably the altruistic individuals woulkd have died off because they gave all their food and women freely to the selfish individuals.

Matt Ridley provides an excellent explanation in his book "The Red Queen". In layman's terms, altruism still exists and is quite rampant because the altruism gene is quite possibly the most selfish gene of all.
For starters, altruism is selective towards family and friends. Family members share genes so an individual being altrusitic towards his/her family is actively promoting his/her genes, in particular the altruism gene.

In terms of friends, an individual being altrusitic towards his/her friends benefits those who are most likely to return the favour.

So the net result is that while the selfish gene helps an individual's selfish gene to survive and replicate, it actively prevents/hinders other persons selfish genes. The selfish gene is stabbing itself in the foot. The altrusim gene, however, promotes the propagation of itself, twicefold. Once in the giver and once in the receiver.

There exists an equilibrium of the two.

What fascinates me the most though is how the two interact with each other and can benefit a species as a whole. I think the best way to explain it is through the game "left4dead".
Left4dead and its sequel are fairly linear zombie first person shooters where teamwork is an absolute necessity. It is also a great way to see how different individuals overcome obstacles and reach their goals with the resources (including human resources) available.

In each level the aim is to get to the safe room (or rescue) and in eahc level the AI director throws zombies and special infected at the team in order to stop them. The special infected have the ability to single handedly pin down (and eventually kill) a survivor, so it is up to a survivor's team mate to:
a) point out the special so that survivor 1 can kill it themselves
b) kill the special
and of course if the special does pin down the survivor
c) free survivor 1 from the special

So it is quite beneficial to have team mates who actively help each other out and look out for each other. Indeed it is near impossible to finish a campaign with a full team of selfish people who don't look out for each other and happily ignore each other as their team mates get pinned down, incapacitated and killed by the zombies and special infected.

What is even more interesting is how altruism can hinder a team and how selfishness can save a team from dying and having to restart a level. While it is always better to have a full team helping each other out, only one person needs to make it to the safe room or rescue.

  Often when the rescue comes all hell breaks loose and a survivor may find his 3 other team pinned down by survivors and being zombie horded. In such a scenario (which i have been in) an altruistic and selfless individual in an altrusitic team will stay behind to help his team mate only to be killed by zombies or a special and it is game over.

Whereas a selfish team mate runs past and gets straight into that rescue helicopter, ending the campaign in victory.

In so many games I have been in the position of that selfish survivor or the abandoned team mate.
I can't quite describe the feeling. As the selfish survivor I get a brief pang of survivor's guilt but self assured I did the right thing by the team (and selfishly glad i survived). And as the abandoned survivor who has been left4dead, I happily sacrifice myself for that victory screen and if you ever play with me you may hear my screams of "keep going, don't worry about me, you're almost there!".

Not that I consider myself altruistic at all.

But selfishness is there for a reason, just like altruism is there for a reason. In left4dead, altruism alone gets the team killed and selfishness only gets everyone killed quicker. But together the result is a team that survives.

This is humanity.The mechanisms are much more complex and less transparent in the real world, but humanity survives and thrives because of the equilibrium between selfishness and altruism.

And when the zombie apocalypse strikes you can safely wager that there will be those who sacrifice themselves for the greater good and those who consider themselves to be the greater good but humanity will survive.


  1. interesting stuff thanks for posting.

  2. The Bible never says it is wrong to care for oneself: we love our neighbor as ourself.

    Also, the ultruism gene theory doesn't explain why people do things for others when there's no benefit in it for that person.