The Origins of Human Sociality

Monday, October 19, 2009

Philippe Rochat and Bradd Shore


On Thursday, October 8th, Philippe Rochat (Psychology) and Bradd Shore(Anthropology) kicked off this year’s CMBC Lunch Discussion series, offering an engaging presentation concerning the psychological and cultural origins of human prosocial behavior. This presentation encapsulated the central questions and findings that arose from a CMBC sponsored graduate seminar that Philippe and Bradd co-taught in the spring ’09. The goal of this seminar was to reconsider some traditional questions in ethics and social theory from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Are human beings naturally selfish or altruistic? What are the cognitive developmental roots of prosocial behavior and a sense of fairness? How does culture impact the expression of these tendencies? Over the course of their presentation, Philippe and Bradd made a compelling case that conventional, ‘either-or’ approaches to the first question obscure the inherent ambiguity of our social-ethical existence: selfishness and altruism are inextricably connected, not diametrically opposed. We have natural proclivities in both directions, and it is not possible to offer an adequate explanation of one side without reference to the other.

Childhood Development of Sharing and Fairness

In his portion of the presentation, Philippe traced the development of sharing behaviors in children. The first video he showed depicted a 3 year old who was instructed by an experimenter to share candy with a puppet. As soon as the experimenter departed, the child voraciously devoured all the candy, later insisting that she shared. Philippe contrasted this case with a similar scenario involving a five year old that was presented with seven pieces of candy. The child systematically split the candy equally, one-by-one between himself and a puppet until stopping at the seventh and final piece. In an effort to be fair, the child left the final piece in the bowl rather than taking it for himself. The contrast between these two cases was striking, and Philippe noted that these results have been replicated cross-culturally. Based on this set of studies, it seems that selfishness may be ontogenetically prior to altruistic concern, at least in the context of sharing. However, Philippe argued that the relationship is more complex. For instance, he highlighted another study in which infants aged six to ten months showed a preference for puppets exhibiting sharing behaviors; which may be indicative of the development of altruistic sensitivity, as Philippe seemed to suggest, or merely an ego-centric appreciation for the usefulness of generous people. As the general theme of his presentation, Philippe emphasized that, although selfishness may be more manifest at younger ages, prosocial tendencies are present as well. Hence, we are neither “born selfish” nor “born altruistic.” Rather, both kinds of behaviors appear to be naturally developing.

Ritual Gift Exchange and the Empirical Social Contract

Picking up where Philippe left off, Bradd began his final portion of the lunch presentation raising this question: given the inherent tensions between the “social self” and self-interest, how can we explain the extension of altruistic behavior beyond in-group boundaries? He noted that a proclivity for xenophobic mistreatment of “the other” seems to be an unfortunate side-effect of our natural tendency towards in-group egalitarianism. What, then, accounts for the wider social cohesion within a given culture? Theorists working in the Social Contract Theory tradition, such as Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke, propose that this is achieved when self-interested individuals within a society collectively agree to limit individual liberty based on the recognition that social harmony will better promote individual welfare in the long term. How can this theory be grounded empirically? Bradd’s general thesis is that broader forms of altruism are an emergent property of ritual exchange. The Social Contract is not an event but rather a process unfolding through ritualized practices of gift-giving, e.g., marital exchange. Bradd underscored that the expression of altruistic practices will vary from culture to culture depending on the prevailing ideology. Atomistic versus collectivist cultures reflect unique modes of reconciling the inherent tensions between self and other.

What Constitutes “Altruistic Behavior?”

At the conclusion of Bradd and Philippe’s presentation, a member of the audience made an important observation that “altruism” in the context of this discussion referred to a much broader range of behaviors than the common usage would suggest. In everyday parlance, “altruism” typically refers to cases in which individuals sacrifice themselves for the sake of others without any self-regard. A prototypical example would be the soldier during battle that jumps on a grenade to save his/her compatriots. In contrast, as I understood them, Bradd and Philippe endorsed a more evolutionary-biological definition of altruism, requiring only that individuals sacrifice short-term gains in contexts of social exchange, broadly construed. As I have learned from my readings in this area, evolutionary theorists typically distinguish between biological and psychological altruism. The psychological level refers to the conscious motives that drive our behaviors. Psychologically, agents may perform prosocial acts for a variety of reasons. Psychological altruism encompasses cases where agents act primarily with the interest of others in mind. In contrast, I can perform a prosocial act for my own long-term benefit (e.g., I will share my candy with you now in the hopes that you will return this favor in the future). Importantly, as Robert Trivers’ famously underscored with his theory of reciprocal altruism, an act can be psychologically altruistic and biologically selfish (i.e., promote an individual’s genetic fitness, whether the individual knows this or not) at the same time. This may be what the presenters had in mind when they provocatively questioned whether humans are capable of “purely altruistic” acts.

Ethical Implications?

Philippe and Bradd’s presentation raises several interesting issues. They both argued that the traditional opposition between selfishness and altruism misrepresents the conflicted nature of our social existence. We have natural proclivities in both directions, and so it would be wrong to claim that “we are born” only one way or the other, selfish or altruistic. Nonetheless, at times, it seemed that both presenters were endorsing a view that selfishness is perhaps a more dominant pole or somehow primary, which may be a consequence of adopting a more evolutionary view of selfishness and altruism. For instance, Bradd underscored that the extension of altruistic concern beyond in-group boundaries is not a “natural process,” while Philippe raised concerns about our basic conceptions of altruism. Interestingly, Frans de Waal (Psychology & Yerkes), who I am working with on my dissertation that focuses on the naturalistic foundations of moral cognition, has offered a “floating pyramid model” of prosocial behavior to explain how selfishness may take precedence over altruistic tendencies, despite the fact that both are part of our evolved nature. According to this theory, we are hardwired such that our range of altruistic concern is constrained by our level of material comfort. In general, altruistic concern for out-group members is only possible–but certainly not guaranteed–when our basic survival needs are met. When resources are scarce, kin and close relations naturally take precedence. As this pressure is alleviated, a wider range of altruistic behavior can rise to the surface. Clearly, emphasizing that selfishness and altruism are both natural to human beings leaves ample room for further investigation. It seems that one of the chief challenges in this area is determining a useful definition of naturalness versus unnaturalness. Finally, although Bradd and Philippe did not directly address this issue, another important question raised by their presentation concerns the normative implications of this kind of descriptive study. In addressing the origins of selfishness and altruism, the presenters appeared to be explaining the naturalistic foundations of morality at the same time. The standard line in moral philosophy is that this kind of scientific theorizing has little bearing on the normative issue of how we ought to act–since “what is natural is not necessarily right.” However, I wonder if the following thesis holds as well: is it also the case that what is morally right must, in some sense, be natural? Can we even imagine an unnatural moral system?

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