Selfishly Altruistic

Generosity doesn't have to be selfless.

Altruistic Dogs and Other Questions on Cooperation

Do We Live In A Friendly Universe?

There's a really, really interesting war brewing these days between the evolutionary psychologists and the ecological psychologists. In very basic terms, the war is about competition and cooperation and which is the more powerful driver of evolution. In not so basic terms, the war is about answering Einstein's fabled question: do we live in a friendly universe?

The evolutionary camp has a very easy answer for Albert. Ruthless competition is the law of the land, so no, the universe is not friendly. When cooperation does exist in this environment, like altruistic behavior, it's always selfishness in disguise.

Now, certainly, there are other viewpoints around—such as the myriad theories of group selection—but after Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" introduced the meme of 'genes as the fundamental level of selection' (by arguing that the gene's only function is the innately selfish process of self-replication), any selection pressure exerted at the group level was believed to be negated at the individual level.

Afterwards, altruism became kin selection—we help those who are closely related to us (thus insuring our genes gets passed along—or reciprocal altruism—we help those who help us.

This idea has pretty much dominated for the past forty years, but it's been taking increasing blows from the ecological camp.

Part of this comes down to an availability of data. For years we saw the world through a competitive lens and this blinded us to cooperative behavior.

The classic example of this is play behavior in animals. I have a new book coming out in a few weeks (A Small, Furry Prayer) where I examine this idea at some length, but the very, very short version is: for most of the 20th century researchers saw all play fighting behavior—what's technically known as "rough-and-tumble play" (which is also the most basic form of play)—as training for real fighting.

But about 30 years ago, the amazing ethologist Marc Bekoff, decided to re-examine the data. What he found (and what dozens of subsequent researchers have found) is almost no correlation. Animals don't fight how they play and they don't play how they fight.

Instead, as Bekoff wrote in an article for Scientific American about the play behavior of canids (dogs, wolves, coyotes): "Canids follow a strict code of conduct when they play, which teaches pups the rules of social engagement that allow their societies to succeed. Play also builds trusting relationships among pack members, which enables divisions of labor, dominance hierarchies and cooperation in hunting, raising young, and defending food and territory."

Play, then, is about cooperation, not competition.

On an entirely personal note, as the co-founder of the Rancho de Chihuahua dog sanctuary—and a guy who shares his home with a pack of 25 dogs—I see frequent displays of extremely cooperative behavior that, as far as I can tell, don't exist within the scientific literature.

One example of this comes from how we feed our dogs. Rancho de Chihuahua is a special needs dog sanctuary. We do hospice care for aged dogs. We do very long term rehab for severely mentally and physically handicapped dogs. We have somewhat unusual methods.

Dogs evolved to live in large packs of dogs and with other humans. Until the advent of agriculture, humans did not view themselves as a superior species. We were equal to animals and treated them accordingly. This was the "emotional environment" that fostered our co-evolution with canids and it's the same environment we strive for at Rancho de Chihuahua. The reason for this is simple: create an environment that's somewhat similar to the environment that dogs evolved in and the animals will feel safer. More safety means less stress and less stress means faster healing and better long-term health outcomes.

So what does this have to do with how we feed our dogs? We feed our dogs chicken seed style—by scattering dog food on our porch. The whole pack just shares. Not only are there very few fights, we frequently see bigger dogs positioning themselves between new arrivals—who often freak out the first time they are fed via the scattershot method—and the other dogs, specifically making sure the new guys get enough to eat.

There are dozens of other examples, but you get the point. Ever since I got the point I have been paying significantly more attention to the ecological side of this debate.

Recently, when I was talking to a microbiologist friend about these ideas, he pulled out his iphone to show me one of John Bonner's famous slime mold movies. These molds, Bonner points out, are "no more than a bag of amoebae encased in a thin slime sheath," but they exhibit a remarkable amount of cooperative intelligence.

Individual cells will run around foraging for food, but 24 hours after they run out of food, the separate organisms pull themselves together in what's called a "multi-cellular slug." This slug will run around looking for food as well, but if that too fails then the level of cooperation again increases and self-sacrifice occurs.

The cells gather together and form a stalk and then a fruiting body. Some cells lyse along the way-meaning they break apart to form nutrient content for the other cells to feed upon. Those cells that make up the stalk also sacrifice themselves (both because they choose not to reproduce and because the stalk dies quickly). While those at the top of the body will clump together into a ball of live spores. These spores break free and float off and start the whole process all over again.

This raises a few questions that I'm not certain how to answer: if the cells are the fundamental unit of selection-what's up with the self-sacrifice in the slime mold?

Furthermore, it's not just a behavior found in slime mold—it's found in all of us as well. Our current definition of apoptosis is "programmed cell death," yet this is just a fancy name for cell suicide. And apoptosis goes on all the time. Every day, in our bodies, 50 to 70 billion cells kill themselves.

But isn't this another example of cooperative behavior exhibited at the cellular level?

And isn't that a fundamental counter-argument to Dawkin's ideas about selfish genes?