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 Post subject: Self-sacrifice is a survival trait.
PostPosted: Wed Sep 22, 2010 9:27 pm 
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I recently read Sebastian Junger's book "War". Firstly let me say that I enjoyed the book immensely. On one level the book is about the experience of modern warfare. The author is a reporter who was embedded with a US platoon in Afghanistan. Over the 18 months of their deployment he did six one-month periods with them. He talks very little about his own experiences -- rather, he describes what happens and then quotes the men as they discuss their experiences. On another level, the author talks about why the men do what they do. All of which I enjoyed and leads to the topic of this thread.

Junger talks about a concept that caught my eye -- that self-sacrifice is a survival trait. It goes like this:

Human evolution is driven by natural selection. The genetic material of those who die before they reproduce is, in effect, weeded out of the gene pool. Therefore, courage -- the willingness to risk one's own life in order to give another some chance of survival -- seems to run counter to natural selection unless there is significant social reward (defined as access to resources and women) in being seen as courageous. This in turn requires language (in other words, we would have to be a long way along the evolutionary path before those rewards could even become possible). Self-sacrifice -- performing an act that is certain to lead to death in the hope that others might survive -- would seem to be completely counter to natural selection.

Yet in war most soldiers display courage to the point where acts of heroism are common -- and there are soldiers who will "jump on a grenade" in an effort to protect their brothers-in-arms. How to explain this?

The human brain can cope with around 150 person-to-person relationships. These are the people you "know" -- you know their name, who they are, how they fit into your world. In pre-history, hunter-gatherer tribes consisted of 50 to 70 loosely related individuals. The young man who died protecting his tribe before he could breed may well have been weeded out of the gene pool, but his brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews may well have had a chance to breed that they would not have had if the tribe had not had young men willing to fight to the death in order to protect the tribe. As such, the genetic material of the courageous, of the self-sacrificing, remains in the gene pool in spite of the fact that were unable to breed themselves.

At least, that's the thought expressed in the book. What do you think -- can courage and self-sacrifice be seen as survival traits evolutionarily-speaking?

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 Post subject: Re: Self-sacrifice is a survival trait.
PostPosted: Thu Sep 23, 2010 5:25 pm 
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Indeed, what you say is perfectly sensible.

In the same vein, I've heard an anthropologist saying homosexuality, when recessive, is also an evolutionnary trait, because in prehistory, ressources were scarce, having a gay uncle meant you didn't have to compete with your cousins for food. Plus, the gay uncle could take care of you like yet another of your parents, because he did not have children of his own. That's why there are gays in all cultures across history.

Humans have always been social creatures, that means that some behaviors that are not evolutionnary viable for solitary creatures are when applied to humans.


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 Post subject: Re: Self-sacrifice is a survival trait.
PostPosted: Thu Sep 23, 2010 9:41 pm 
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Jack Jack wrote:
In the same vein, I've heard an anthropologist saying homosexuality, when recessive, is also an evolutionnary trait...


I'm not touching this one, interesting though the topic might be.

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 Post subject: Re: Self-sacrifice is a survival trait.
PostPosted: Fri Sep 24, 2010 4:47 pm 
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Ian.Plumb wrote:
What do you think -- can courage and self-sacrifice be seen as survival traits evolutionarily-speaking?

I have thought quite a bit about this.

On a merely argumentative level, I would say that, if the hypothesis was true, one should expect to commonly find self-sacrifice for the sake of others also among chimpanzees and gorillas – both are primates genetically and evolutionary very similar to humans and living in family groups not unlike paleolithic humans. Yet while I have heard that these primates display a range of quite sophisticated emotions, I have never heard accounts of self-sarcifice among them. Yet by the theory, they should qualify for self-sacrifice being a survival trait for them.

But I am not really interested in this vein of argumentation. For me the whole hypothesis is just another seemingly compelling, yet in truth rather revolting attempt to reduce core issues of humanity to a mechanical model, to explain human behaviour by simple formulas. I don’t believe that humanity is so mechanistic and simplistic, and I wouldn’t want to live in a world where it was.

So I refute the theory on philosophical grounds alone. In any attempt to fully fathom the human soul and mind, I can only say: “If our mind was so simple that it could be fully understood, it would be so simple that we could not understand it.”

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 Post subject: Re: Self-sacrifice is a survival trait.
PostPosted: Fri Sep 24, 2010 9:38 pm 
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Grettir wrote:
On a merely argumentative level, I would say that, if the hypothesis was true, one should expect to commonly find self-sacrifice for the sake of others also among chimpanzees and gorillas – both are primates genetically and evolutionary very similar to humans and living in family groups not unlike paleolithic humans. Yet while I have heard that these primates display a range of quite sophisticated emotions, I have never heard accounts of self-sarcifice among them. Yet by the theory, they should qualify for self-sacrifice being a survival trait for them.


Yes indeed -- very good point. Only humans demonstrate this trait. To me, if this were the path to special success we would see it commonly amongst other species. Yet we do not.

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 Post subject: Re: Self-sacrifice is a survival trait.
PostPosted: Sun Sep 26, 2010 5:16 am 
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As a professional biologist, I can tell you that Altruism (self sacrifice) is common in the animal kingdom. There are plenty of examples both in term of risk taking and fortiture of reproductive success. In both cases there is a clear evolutionary advantage. You genes are found not only in you, but also in your relatives. So if you live in a small related group (like most humans would have for most of evolutionary history), protecting your brother or your brother's children, is good for you too.


There are other odd results too.

In communal insects like bees, the fact that most individuals in the hive do not reproduce (the only one being the queen) is explained by their genetics--and the strange result that sisters are more related to each other than their to their own offspring.

"Helpers at the nest" are common in many bird species. These individuals 'stay home' and help their parents raise a second round of chicks instead of reproducing themselves.

I don't know any spefics about chimps, but I'd be surprised if there weren't some altruism exhibited. I'll ask a friend who is a mammal biologist.


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 Post subject: Re: Self-sacrifice is a survival trait.
PostPosted: Sun Sep 26, 2010 6:12 am 
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toli wrote:
As a professional biologist, I can tell you that Altruism (self sacrifice) is common in the animal kingdom. There are plenty of examples both in term of risk taking and fortiture of reproductive success. In both cases there is a clear evolutionary advantage. You genes are found not only in you, but also in your relatives. So if you live in a small related group (like most humans would have for most of evolutionary history), protecting your brother or your brother's children, is good for you too.

Altruism – of which I am aware –, as in willingly accepting a disadvantage to yourself to further the success of your genteically related family group, is one thing, but an outright “I lay down my life so that you may live” quite another one.

I suspect that Mr Junger’s theory is coloured too much by his experience of war in the gunpowder age. The soldier throwing himself over a grenade, or the soldier giving his own life to take out a machinegun-nest – that’s one human giving his life so that many of his buddies may survive.

But these situations are a peculiarity of the modern times, with our advanced technology’s potential for mass destruction. I can’t easily think of comparable situations in technologically less advanced times being anywhere near as commonplace. Today, it may well be the decision to be blown up yourself or see half a dozen of your mates blown to pieces; in the Stone Age, it was rather the decision whether you would be eaten by the wolves or one of your mates. In such situations of equal trade-offs, as opposed to unequal trade-offs, I can’t see how self-sacrifice would be a survival trait.

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 Post subject: Re: Self-sacrifice is a survival trait.
PostPosted: Sun Sep 26, 2010 11:12 am 
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Junger is of course relating everything back to the specifics of conflict. So he's not, for example, talking about a willingness to forgo food in order to see another survive. He is talking about why a soldier is willing to give up his life so that another might survive.

So the chimp example is with that in mind. Male chimps fight as a group, attacking other groups of chimps in an effort to take their territory -- and thus gain access to their females. When this occurs whichever side is losing abandons those males that have been caught by the other side; they run away as a group. No single chimp charges back in an effort to rescue a beleaguered relative being accosted by several "enemy" chimps.

Junger approaches this in attempting to explain platoon dynamics. A platoon relies on the fact that its members will make reflex decisions that promote the well-being of the platoon over the well-being of the individuals making those decisions. The medic breaks from cover and attempts to get to a wounded comrade because he fears his comrade bleeding out more than being wounded or killed himself. In part this explains why well-trained troops (ie Nato forces) perform well when fighting the insurgents while ANA (Afghan) forces do less well.

While I can think of several insect examples that self-sacrifice during conflict for the good of the colony I can't think of any animal examples where such self-sacrifice occurs during conflict. Maybe dogs when they pack? Anyway, happy to hear of some examples.

TRoS of course asks the question of every PC: "What are you willing to die for?" I think, like Grettir, self-sacrifice is probably a human trait.

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 Post subject: Re: Self-sacrifice is a survival trait.
PostPosted: Sun Sep 26, 2010 9:37 pm 
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Getting yourself killed for unrelated group members is probably a human 'trait'. I would argue, however, that it could easily be based on previous evolution. Throughout most human evolutionary history, your 'buddies' would have been relatives. It can be seen as Kin Selection gone awry--you think your group is kin because in the past they would have been.

Human 'society' has also clearly expanded 'kin' beyond true kin to what you might call 'ideological kin', so in many cases there is a perceived gain. I die but democracy and freedom (and my name) will live on..... Genetically there is no gain, necessarily. Military indoctrination involves a lot of development of the idea of group membership.

NT


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