Altruism Pays* (Read the Fine Print)

Life for Life

Reciprocal Altruism (RA) is humanity. It is the concept that explains progress and is crucial to study and understand if you’re human.

RA explains why fish don’t eat each other, why birds sing, why we carry bags of dog poop in public, and why people compete every day to give us free stuff.

Altruism is any behavior that benefits an unrelated other at your expense.

Altruistic acts require personal sacrifice. You must reduce your survival chances to help something or someone outside your family. Relatives don’t count. Helping relatives benefits your own genes, even if all they’ve ever given you is terrible birthday presents.

Reciprocal Altruism is the original high optionality investment; altruism with defined cost and potentially exponential dividends.

Altruism’s 6 Selection Criteria

  1. Long lifespans – more time increases the probability of being repaid
  2. Living in close proximity – allows repeated interactions for bonding, repayment of favors, and punishment of cheaters
  3. Mutual dependence – if you don’t need each other, why help?
  4. Expensive parental investment – parents changed diapers and spooned pre-chewed food for baby-you so that hopefully you will do the same for them when they’re geriatric
  5. Absence of dominance hierarchies – if the alpha can take by force, why reciprocate?
  6. Need for help while hunting or fighting – watch my back and I’ll watch yours

Who Says

Robert Trivers is a genius who started the discussion with his paper “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism” published in 1971. Trivers tackles the math, in game theory terms, of how RA would be selected by evolution. He also highlights RA behaviors by fish, birds, and humans.

We’ll briefly discuss fish and birds because they won’t read this article.

Cross-species Reciprocal Altruism? Go Fish

Scientists studied fish around ocean coral reefs and noticed a thriving underwater economy.

Small cleaner fish stayed in the protection of coral waiting for larger host fish to pull up for service. The host fish would arrive and perform a ritual display of changing colors, opening its mouth and gills, and inviting the cleaner fish to come inside to eat any parasites they found. After cleaning was performed, the host fish would dance to signal the cleaner fish that it was departing.

Two things stand out:

  1. The host fish almost never ate the cleaner fish and often formed long-term relationships with the same cleaner
  2. There are species that mimic the appearance and behaviors of cleaner fish. They sneak up and bite pieces off the host fish before darting away. All games have cheaters

Noise or Signal

Evolutionary signaling gives the cheating mimic context. Organisms rely on communication to interact. They communicate through many signals including color, shape, size, movement, and noise.

Signaling creates a niche for cheaters to take advantage. A game is played and remains sustainable if most everyone plays by the same rules. Host fish that encounter many cheaters will stop playing the game and start eating cleaner fish, including the mimics. This response makes cheating less attractive as a strategy. There are checks and balances in a game of rock-paper-scissors.

What would happen if the host fish ate its cleaners without justification? It would become more difficult to find cleaners and, over time, the host fish would accumulate so many parasites it would die. Mutually assured destruction. Not good.

Birds Sing Songs at a Cost

Scientists also observed that birds sing to alert other, unrelated birds when a predator is close. This may be an act of RA. Making noise has a cost as it draws attention and may result in the bird’s death. Either from the predator it sees, or, another one nearby it doesn’t see.

This behavior is harder to explain than the fish example and Trivers’ gives other possible reasons.

Humans Play the Best Games

Humans are polygamerous, we play iterative games with everyone and everything around us, including the plants and animals we’ve domesticated.

Many articles could be written on the games we play with wheat, rice, coffee, cows, chickens, and dozens of other species.

The next section focuses on dogs.

Anthropomorphism Is Feature Not Bug

Humans co-evolved with dogs over thousands of years; we changed them and they changed us. But, how could snarling wolves on the frozen Eurasian plain become something so different?

How could a wolf ever become Sprinkles? Your Sprinkles, whom you love so much you follow her along concrete sidewalks, plastic bag dispenser in hand, desperately pleading in your mind, hoping she doesn’t feel like dropping deuces in your neighbor’s lawn, the neighbor sitting in their window, watching you with pre-judgment and contempt…

Two things explain you shamefully walking city blocks with a warm, squishy bag in your hand:

  1. Anthropomorphism – the tendency to humanize and empathize with non-human life forms
  2. Reciprocal Altruism (RA)

Expect a future article on anthropomorphism. For now, let’s apply what we’ve learned about RA to dogs:

  • Their length of life and intelligence are enough to reward the investments of bonding and training
  • They adapted to tolerate noisy human settlements and live with us
  • Their short reproductive cycle enables selective breeding, a process we’ve used to create hundreds of breeds, each filling a different niche
  • We benefit them with protection, stable food supply, and regular butt scratchings (dogs can’t scratch their own butts, they also can’t scratch each others’ butts)
  • They became more child-like, appealing so strongly to our parental instincts that many treat their dogs like babies
  • They evolved in social hierarchies and recognize us as alpha. Dogs follow verbal and body-language commands and understand reward and punishment
  • They are pack animals, selected to cooperate in groups, and their senses of smell and hearing are superior to ours. These qualities make them a great aid in guarding, hunting, and warfare

Consider how useful and adaptable our relationship with dogs has been:

  • They aided us in catching prey and alerting us to threats when we were hunter-gatherers
  • They became shepherds guiding and protecting our flocks when we were pastoralists
  • They became pest control by keeping rodents from our grain stores when we were farmers
  • Now that we’re depressed, professional chair-sitters our dogs are the ultimate companion, eyes gazing, tails wagging

We continue to make sacrifices for dogs. We give them expensive food and toys, we play with them when we don’t feel like it, we take them outside to use the bathroom when it’s raining or freezing cold, we pay for their healthcare, the list continues. These are dividends we pay them for helping us when we were a more vulnerable species.

Dogs give us everything. They give us everything they have and are capable of. And, when they can’t do something we need, they allow us to change them until they can.

It’s been a damn good deal for both parties. Dogs helped us conquer the world. They rarely cheat or fail. Modern dogs have many of the same moral and legal protections as humans. We love them like ourselves because we’re a species defined by altruism and we happily repay our friends. They’ve earned it.

Humans Play Nice Together Or Die

Evolution shaped us over the hundreds of thousands of years we spent in hunter-gatherer tribes of about 20-30 people. Hunter-gathering is a game with specific rules. The goal is survival over the long-term and that requires group cohesion.

Hunter-gatherers have three primary attributes:

  1. Cooperation and sharing of resources
  2. Division of labor between males and females
  3. Punishment for displays of arrogance and attempts at coercive dominance

People live at subsistence level, so all food is eaten or soon decays. They must travel with the animals they hunt, so property is limited to what can be carried long distances. For these reasons wealth cannot accumulate and the concept of private property doesn’t exist.

Women are highly valued and respected and have an equal voice in society. But, for evolutionary reasons, they fill a different niche in the tribe than men; they alone carry new life.

Men produce hundreds of millions of sperm per day while women can only carry one baby a year. A tribe can recover from losing most of its men. If they lose a fraction of their women they will be set back for generations at best. At worst, the tribe never recovers because the loss of women and reproductive success allows other groups to displace them.

Women were far too valuable to send into the wilderness to face wild beasts or into war with other tribes. The groups that did this with their women were punished by mathematics and no longer exist.

There are often one or two high prestige males in a group. They are under the same rules as everyone else and are humiliated and rejected by everyone if they behave arrogantly or try to exert dominance.

Ritualized shaming of hunted meat: hunter-gatherer tribes have formal rituals of insulting the meat from kills. It’s not big enough, it’s not fat enough, the animal is too old.

The hunter is required to publicly apologize for his inadequacy. This mechanism prevents the best hunters from becoming arrogant and attempting coercion.

The subtext is that everyone secretly keeps score and knows who the most competent men are. The most competent men gain prestige, become leaders, and have the most reproductive success.

The successful males (whose genes and behaviors spread at a higher rate) competed with each other to be the most competent, generous, and humble:

  • They turned their competence into tools and meat that increased the entire group’s fitness
  • They built deep social bonds of trust and respect
  • They took care of the sick and weak
  • They took personal risk, sacrificing themselves to protect the tribe
  • They dismissed their own accomplishments as nothing special
  • They lavished praise on others who exhibited behaviors that helped the group

This is the kind of man you volunteer to follow. There is no force involved.

They succeed all the time because they’re smart and competent. And, every time they succeed it’s shared with you, which means you succeed too. They don’t talk about themselves except when the group fails and they take the responsibility. But, they praise you every time you do something good.

You follow them out of self interest.

What Happened to Cheaters?

Cheaters were relatively easy to detect in hunter-gatherer groups because group size was small, society lacked complexity, and there was no privacy in which to hide cheating.

Cheaters such as tyrants, sociopaths, and free-riders were exiled or executed by the entire group.

Exile was a delayed death penalty because humans cannot survive alone. Collective participation in executions (including the cheater’s family) were required to prevent vendetta cycles.

This is why there are few sociopaths today and may explain our predisposition to scapegoating.

There’s good reason the deepest section of Dante’s hell is for betrayers.

We know through genetic testing that at one point fewer than 20,000 humans survived on the earth. One undetected betrayer in a small tribe could’ve killed the entire group. 200 undetected betrayers spread throughout the earth could’ve smothered humanity in its cradle.

Competence Conquers Dominance

We evolved in and are adapted to competence hierarchies. Dominance and coercion are not winning strategies for humans over the long-term. We play iterated games which require voluntary participation to continue.

Humans are special: we understand cause and effect, calculate mental simulations into the future, conceal our intentions, and form coalitions against injustice. We are capable of self-sacrifice for the concept of greater good and we know every tyrant sleeps with a soft, exposed throat.

How to Live in Harmony with RA

  • Be fair and kind to everything and everyone – you never know if or when it will result in exponential rewards
  • Play the long game – seek virtue over short-term pleasure
  • Assume positive intent until proven otherwise – but be vigilant and careful until someone earns your trust
  • Train your ability to detect cheaters – and when you identify them, distance yourself
  • Promote and reward people who are fair and honest – it will make the world a better place
  • Become as productive and generous as you can – your success is enhanced with the social capital from deep relationships
  • Focus on quality rather than quantity of your relationships

Up Next

I hope you enjoyed this article. Tell me what you think in the comments or on Twitter (@RobertDKelley).

This is only the first piece in a series. I will publish more articles exploring human development from the time we left hunter-gathering up to the present age, highlighting how changes in society have impacted the conditions that foster Reciprocal Altruism.

Creation Relies on Observation and Inspiration

This article would not exist without interactions with two people.

Naval Ravikant (@naval):

I discovered Naval four months ago on Tim Feriss’s podcast and began reading his Twitter. He felt like a kindred soul.

He said he missed a Twitter account AmusedChimp and it sparked a desire in me to create something he would enjoy. After 10 years of procrastination (outlining and planning) I began writing every day on Twitter.

I meditated on his tweet about knowledge and wisdom, wrote a thread, and shared it. He retweeted “Knowledge is to skill what fat is to muscle” and followed me, both of which boosted my confidence to create. I appreciate his kindness and generosity.

Jordan Peterson (@jordanbpeterson):

I discovered Jordan when he made a public stand against compelled speech in 2016 and took great personal risk to defend free speech and thought.

I started watching 3-6 hours of his videos every day for months and found his discussions on the interplay between psychology, religion, mythology, and archetypes fascinating.

His career was in jeopardy at the time and I wanted to support his livelihood and bible lectures. I became a patron which granted an hour-long Skype call.

We talked in June 2017 and discussed the ideas in this article. I asked how I could help. He told me to start creating content and offered to provide feedback.

It took over a year for results but his example and encouragement planted a seed.

Recommended Reading

Disclaimer: if you buy from the Amazon links I’ll earn a small commission.