[Paleopsych] H-N: From Helping to Hand Grenades: Setting the Bar for Altruism

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>From Helping to Hand Grenades: Setting the Bar for Altruism
by L James Climenhage and Dennis L Krebs
[Thanks to Laird for this.]

    Evolutionary Psychology 3: 208-215

    Book Review

    From Helping to Hand Grenades: Setting the Bar for Altruism

    A review of Kindness in a Cruel World: the Evolution of Altruism by
    Nigel Barber, Prometheus Books, 2004.

    L. James Climenhage and Dennis L. Krebs, Department of Psychology,
    Simon Fraser University, 8888 University drive, Burnaby B.C., Canada.

    In Kindness in a Cruel World: the Evolution of Altruism, Nigel Barber
    suggests that "Kindness exists, but it struggles to stay afloat on an
    ocean of cruelty that is the default condition for organisms competing
    for existence on this planet" (p. 9). The main premise of Barber's
    book is that humans inherit a capacity for altruism that can be
    enhanced or diminished through nurture. Barber suggests that the core
    of this capacity evolved through kin selection and is reflected in
    parental investment. From this center, altruism ripples outward in
    concentric circles to reciprocity between members of ingroups, systems
    of cooperation in societies, and relations among nations. However, the
    larger the circle, the weaker the altruistic dispositions. In
    supporting this model, Barber adduces a potpourri of evidence drawn
    from a wide array of disciplines, including evolutionary biology,
    economics, political science, history, social and developmental
    psychology, game theory, anthropology, and neuroscience. By and large,
    this book is a good read for lay people and students, but we fear
    evolutionary psychologists will find many of the analyses simplified
    and compartmentalized, and some of the conclusions overgeneralized and
    sensationalized. We were also disappointed by Barber's failure to
    define the central construct of the book, altruism, in a consistent
    manner, and his tendency to use the word to refer to quite different

    The contents of the book

    Divided into four parts, this book encompasses a large number of
    topics ranging from those dealt with by mainstream evolutionary
    psychologists to those with less direct relevance to the evolution of
    altruism, such as white collar crime and the sexual behaviour of
    priests and nuns. The four sections of this book are organized as

    Altruism in man and beast.
    In the first section, Barber offers a brief introduction to Darwin's
    theory of natural selection, then goes on to describe Hamilton's model
    of kin selection, interpreting the self-sacrificial helping behaviours
    of social species such as bees and spiders in terms of mechanisms that
    evolved through this process. Barber suggests that "altruism in the
    sterile honeybee is no different from altruism of a parent towards
    offspring" (p. 70).

    Barber accounts for helping among strangers in terms of reciprocal
    altruism. He reviews arguments for and against the idea that the alarm
    calls of Belding's ground squirrels qualify as altruistic. In
    considering the evolution of reciprocal altruism in human beings,
    Barber emphasizes the significance of emotions such as guilt, shame,
    and moral outrage, arguing that reciprocal altruism works best in
    small groups (e.g., hunter gatherers) in which individuals can enhance
    their fitness by working together and trading perishable goods.

    Finally, Barber explores an apparently altruistic profession largely
    overlooked by evolutionary psychologists, suggesting that
    "heterosexual priests who refrain from sexual intercourse with women
    could be considered reproductive altruists if their renunciation of
    heterosexual expression contributed to the welfare and reproductive
    success of others..." (p. 96). However, acknowledges Barber, there are
    many selfish reasons for choosing chastity. Barber ends this
    discussion by offering a lengthy overview of the history of celibacy
    in the Catholic Church, which includes evidence that many heterosexual
    priests were in fact not chaste.

    Growing up to be good.
    In the second section, Barber considers the development of altruism in
    children, focusing on self-awareness and the emotions that stem from
    it, such as embarrassment, pride, and shame. He argues that although
    non-human species such as dogs may seem to experience moral emotions,
    they "are not self-aware so they cannot have an abstract appreciation
    of their effects on others" (p. 102). The ability to think about
    oneself, Barber argues, enables a person to go against his or her
    natural selfish tendencies, which to Barber is the "essence of

    In examining the roles of nature and nurture in the determination of
    altruism, Barber suggests that parents (he implies a mother and a
    father.) constitute the moral compass of children. He argues that when
    this compass points children in the wrong direction, they may grow up
    to become criminals. In a discussion of altruism among thieves, Barber
    advances a "genes-load-the-gun, environment-pulls-the-trigger" type of
    model, attributing the relatively low crime rates of small communities
    to familiarity and detectability. Invoking the classic prisoner's
    dilemma game, Barber suggests that criminal acts are equivalent to
    defections in which individuals advance their own interests at the
    expense of their communities.

    Overall, Barber argues that evolved mechanisms that give rise to
    altruism are activated through parental investment. If parents invest
    too little, they will create poorly socialized individuals who grow up
    to be deviants, and in extreme cases, psychopaths.

    The social impact of kindness.
    In the third section, Barber considers the link between altruism and
    health. He discusses the relationship between the neurotransmitter
    oxytocin and pair-bonding, reviewing evidence that people are more
    likely to help others if they have a neurochemical bond of affection
    with them, and that a physically close relationship with an adult
    early in life promotes normal brain development and health. Barber
    adduces evidence from Harlow's classic contact comfort studies and
    orphanage studies conducted in the early part of the twentieth century
    in support of the idea that people first learn to be social through
    touch. Touch-deprived monkeys (and children) grow up to be hostile
    towards peers.

    According to Barber "early physical contact is also important for
    developing social trust, which is a vital component of altruism" (p.
    176). Social trust mediates the expansion of the concentric circles of
    altruism, from relations among family members to relations among
    strangers. Barber reviews research on such charitable acts as donating
    blood and rescuing Jews during the Holocaust. He discusses the
    phenomenon of in-group identification, or "groupishness," and reviews
    classic social psychological studies on conformity.

    As we can all attest, altruism for our fellows is often absent. Barber
    ponders how we can explain such incidents of selfishness and cruelty
    as the failure of bystanders to intervene in emergencies, road rage,
    child abuse, infanticide by mothers, and sexual abuse of children by
    parents, strangers, and priests. In accounting for such incidents,
    Barber takes the reader on a rather long digression regarding the
    heinous history of the Catholic Church, then examines the
    underpinnings of hostile driving practices. He considers several
    reasons why hostile drivers are different from the "normals" of
    society, and opines that "Many [hostile drivers] have antisocial
    personality disorder, a comparatively rare problem, that makes it
    difficult to conform to social rules and obey laws" (p. 294).

    Kindness and politics.
    In the final section, Barber considers how we can "tap" evolved
    propensities to altruism, arguing that our evolved psychological
    adaptations for cooperation have the ability to "unite strangers or
    stir up international conflicts" (p. 303). He examines warfare among
    hunter-gatherer societies, boiling the problem down to ingroup and
    outgroup biases, which Barber claims may be extremely difficult to
    overcome. Our cultural evolution from hunter-gatherer tribes to
    sprawling urban metropolises has created new challenges for our
    species: "With increased economic development, and increased social
    complexity, greater conformity is required" (p. 310).

    Urban environments, according to Barber, give rise to serious problems
    such as disease epidemics, terrorism and pollution. Barber interprets
    global pollution in terms of a prisoner's dilemma in which selfish
    individuals defect and humanity pays the price. Barber argues that the
    reason why the United States refused to sign on to the Kyoto accord is
    because the accord left the door open for cheaters by supplying
    exemptions to underdeveloped countries. He offers an explanation for
    why other large nations, such as Russia, decided to support the
    accord, suggesting that evolved mechanisms render humans short-sighted
    with respect to the environment.

    Barber closes his book by asking, "How can the existence of evil
    people be reconciled with adaptations for altruistic behaviour" (p.
    357)? In answering this question, Barber discusses the sources of such
    egregiously selfish crimes as murder and rape as well as white-collar
    crimes. In the end, Barber concludes that, "Nature is red in tooth and
    claw unless it is restrained by adaptations of altruism" (p. 368).

    An Evaluation

    Clearly, Kindness in a Cruel World touches on many topics. Considered
    by themselves, Barber's discussions of most issues are engaging but
    they tend to lack depth. Regarding the human capacity for altruism,
    Barber offers an array of mini-conclusions, some of which seem
    inconsistent with others, and he fails to tie them together in a
    systematic way.

    These problems become apparent in the book's introduction. Barber
    opens by acknowledging that it might be difficult to persuade readers
    that people are naturally altruistic in view of so much evidence that
    they behave in evil ways, then goes on to argue that "none of these
    manifestations of evil minimizes the altruistic motive that springs
    eternal in the human breast" (p. 9). Why not? What does Barber mean by
    "the" altruistic motive? Or by "springs eternal"? And if this
    statement is valid, why would kindness struggle to "stay afloat on an
    ocean of cruelty that is the default condition for organisms competing
    for existence on this planet" (p. 9). If Barber means that humans have
    evolved to behave in both kind and cruel ways, we would agree. If he
    means that dispositions to behave in evil ways cannot compromise
    altruistic motives, we would disagree and point out that this
    conclusion is inconsistent with the conclusions he draws about
    cheating and defection in prisoner's dilemma types of games. We look
    for clarification and justification of this conclusion, but none is
    forthcoming, at least in any organized manner.

    Later in the introduction, Barber alludes to violent criminals who
    behave in depraved ways, and concludes that "some individuals are
    indeed born without the capacity to develop a conscience (Others fail
    to develop sensitivity to persons because of the brutalizing
    conditions of their childhood.)." We are unaware of any evidence that
    people with antisocial personalities are 'born' without the capacity
    to develop a conscience. However, there is evidence that childhood
    trauma can, and does, have a profound effect on children, leaving some
    children in a seemingly permanent state of 'arrested emotional
    development' (Perry et al., 1995; Joseph, 1999). Such evidence
    minimizes the altruistic motive that springs eternal in, at least, the
    breast of those with antisocial personalities.

    In discussing determinants of criminality, Barber concludes that,"
    Criminals are clearly distinguished by genotypes and family
    environment that reduce their altruistic tendencies and make them more
    likely to put their selfish interests before the good of the
    community" (p. 134). Where is the evidence for distinct genotypes? And
    what of those who "rob from the rich" to "give to the poor?" Is
    altruism purely defined by "acts" or does intent matter? Is it
    appropriate to put civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther Kings
    Jr. who break laws in order to change them in the same category as
    murders and rapists? Many attempts have been made over the last
    century to find a genetic link to crime. We do not know of any that
    have succeeded.

    Toward the end of the introduction, Barber asserts that, "In poor
    countries, youngsters are generally much more concerned with the
    welfare of others than is true of wealthy countries like our own. The
    reason is simple: much is asked of them" (p. 14). Although there is
    evidence that children from small rural communities assume more
    responsibility for caring for their younger siblings and doing
    household chores than children from more urban environments, this
    evidence does not establish that children from wealthy countries have
    any less concern for, say, the welfare of their parents or schoolmates
    than children from poor countries do. It is misleading to account for
    complex behaviors by attributing them to simple causes. If only it
    were the case that parents could endow their children with a concern
    for the welfare of others simply by asking much of them!

    A theme that repeatedly pops up throughout this book is the
    deleterious effects single parenthood is presumed to have on
    children's moral development:

      Single parenthood is a major risk factor for crime. Thus,
      historical increases in crime have been strongly correlated with
      increases in single parenthood (p. 150).

      Children raised without their fathers live in a less healthy manner
      and experience poorer health throughout their lives, on average...
      [which] can produce a decline in altruism...and an increased risk
      of becoming a criminal. (p. 176).

      Children of divorced parents are more likely to "suffer from
      anxiety and depression, to experience alcoholism and drug
      addiction, to get in trouble with the law, and to have conflictual
      relationships with intimate partners and children of their own" (p.

    We know that incidents of crime are correlated with age, race, region,
    sex, socioeconomic status, parenting practices, social support and
    many other variables that, in turn, are correlated with single
    parenthood. And we know that that correlation does not equate to
    causation. Still, the underlying message that emerges from Barber's
    discussion seems to be that single parenthood produces criminals. We
    find this conclusion uncomfortably overgeneralized. How much of the
    variance is accounted for by single parenthood when other factors are
    controlled? What is it about single parenting that disposes some
    children to crime? Why do the children of most single parents turn out
    just fine? Indeed, why do some become exemplars of morality?

    To Barber's credit, he frequently qualifies the overgeneralized
    statements he makes in one part of his book when he revisits the
    issues in other parts. For example, when Barber discusses the
    assistance that siblings render to one another in hunter-gatherer
    societies, he writes, "Such help is not always an unmixed blessing
    because of rivalry between siblings. Thus !Kung children left in
    charge of younger siblings may abuse them. In rare cases they even
    attempt to drown them. This means that young helpers have to be
    supervised carefully" (pp. 31-32). This leaves the reader with two
    seemingly contradictory conclusions.

    What is Altruism?

    The subtitle of Barber's book is, "The Evolution of Altruism." The
    conclusions one reaches about the human capacity for altruism will
    depend on how one defines the construct. Set the bar low, and it will
    be easy to achieve; set it too high, it will be impossible. It is
    often unclear where Barber is setting his bar. In the introduction, he
    defines altruism as "actions that help another individual at some cost
    to the altruist." This definition leaves several important questions
    unanswered. Do behaviors that proffer help to others at "some cost,"
    but with a net gain, qualify as altruistic? What kinds of cost count:
    material losses, pain, losses in reproductive success, diminished
    propagation of genes? Are altruistic behaviors defined solely in terms
    of their consequences, or do intentions matter?

    Barber implies that if there is a payoff in helping someone, then the
    helping behavior may not qualify as altruistic (p. 9). He goes on to
    assert that if a behavior is "predicated on evolved moral emotions
    like empathy and shame, it is "really" altruistic. But why? Behaviors
    stemming from these emotions could reap net benefits. Barber then goes
    on to assert that the "only requirement for altruistic tendencies to
    evolve is that they should generally increase the biological success
    of individuals expressing them" (p. 10). So, it would seem, behaviors
    that help others at a net gain to the "biological success" of the
    helper qualify as altruistic. On this definition, there really is
    little challenge in establishing that people are altruistic (i.e.,
    that they behave altruistically). Yet, a few pages later, Barber
    asserts "An altruist is one who puts the survival or reproduction of
    another individual before his own" (p. 19). If Barber is defining
    "biological success" in terms of reproductive success, how could
    tendencies to put the biological success of others above one's own
    increase the biological success of those who express them? Although
    there may be solutions to this problem, depending on how one defines
    biological success, or fitness, Barber does not offer any. Indeed, he
    does not even acknowledge that there is a problem.

    Types of Altruism

    Related to this issue, Barber includes different kinds of helping
    behaviors in the same "altruism" category (as do many other
    evolutionary theorists). In the introduction, he classifies parental
    care as altruistic. Later he classifies reciprocity and cooperation as
    altruistic; and still later, heroic self-sacrifice. He insists that
    "military service is altruistic, in the sense that the combatants
    sacrifice their personal welfare for the good of others." Although all
    these behaviors may qualify as altruistic when altruism is used as an
    overriding, or umbrella, concept, it is important to attend to and
    acknowledge their differences. Evolutionary theory leads us to suspect
    that they stem from mechanisms that evolved through different
    processes and are designed in different ways. In our view, a great
    deal of the confusion in Barber's book and, more generally, in the
    literature on the evolution of altruism, could be clarified by
    distinguishing among three types of altruism-genetic altruism,
    biological altruism, and psychological altruism-and recognizing that
    they are all different from cooperation and reciprocity.

    Genetic altruism
    . Genetically altruistic behaviors serve to propagate the genes of
    others at the expense of the alleles possessed by those who emit the
    behaviors. Put another way, genetically altruistic behaviors reduce an
    individual's inclusive fitness. This type of altruism seems
    inconsistent with principles of natural selection.

    Biological altruism.
    Biologically altruistic behaviors serve to enhance the individual
    fitness (survival and reproductive success) of other individuals at an
    expense to the fitness of those who emit them. Such behaviors may
    evolve through kin selection. Animals may sacrifice their individual
    fitness to enhance their inclusive fitness. Although such behaviors
    are altruistic at an individual and biological level of analysis, they
    may be selfish at a genetic level. (Indeed, if they are not selfish at
    the genetic level, they constitute a major challenge to the theory of
    evolution!) In some circumstances, the best way for an individual to
    propagate his or her genes is to help others who possess copies of

    Psychological altruism. In everyday discourse, people use the word
    altruism differently from the ways in which evolutionary theorists use
    it. Psychologically altruistic behaviors serve to enhance the profit
    and pleasure, or fulfill the psychological needs, of other individuals
    at a cost to the profit and pleasure of those who emit them. As
    explained by such theorists as Batson (2000), Nesse (2000), and Sober
    and Wilson (2000), there is no necessary connection between
    evolutionary (genetic or biological) and psychological forms of

    As we once heard Richard Dawkins provocatively but accurately point
    out, an allele that produces bad teeth in horses (and leads to less
    effective grazing and more grass for others) is an example of
    evolutionary altruism. Similarly, an allele that leads one to smoke
    cigarettes, which may cause impotence, birth defects, and early death,
    is also an example of evolutionary altruism; it reduces one's
    procreative potential, thereby providing relative reproductive
    benefits to others. Most people interested in the existence of
    altruism are not thinking about bad teeth in horses or smoking
    cigarettes; they are thinking about psychological altruism. (Batson,
    2000, p.207)

    Cooperation and reciprocity. Cooperative behaviors, including those
    that evolutionary theorists since Trivers (1971) have called
    "reciprocal altruism," entail making short term survival and
    reproductive sacrifices in order to enhance one's long term interests,
    and thus need not be genetically, biologically, or psychologically
    altruistic. In some conditions individuals can foster their interests
    by coordinating their efforts with others and engaging in social
    exchanges that reap gains in trade. As Barber points out, in order for
    mechanisms to evolve that dispose individuals to cooperate, the
    mechanisms must contain antidotes to cheating.


    The take-home message of this book is that children inherit both
    selfish and altruistic propensities that may be stifled or encouraged
    by the ways in which they are raised: "...altruism is comparable to
    physical fitness. We cannot expect children to become athletes without
    any opportunity for physical exercise. Neither can we expect them to
    help others if they receive no training in altruism...our evolutionary
    history has...provided us with altruistic motives that grow stronger
    from exercise" (p. 15). We concur with this general conclusion, but
    did not find the case Barber advanced in support of it organized as
    coherently or argued as persuasively as we believe it should have


    Batson, C. D. (2000). Commentary discussion of Sober and Wilson's
    "Unto others: A service... and a disservice." Journal of Consciousness
    Studies, 7, 207-210.

    Joseph, R. (1999). Environmental influences on neural plasticity, the
    limbic system, emotional development and attachment: A review. Child
    Psychiatry and Human Development, 29, 189-208.

    Nesse, R. M. (2000). How selfish genes shape moral passions. Journal
    of Consciousness Studies, 7, 227-231.

    Perry, B. D., Pollard, R. A., Blakley, T. L., Baker, W. L. and
    Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of
    adaptation, and "use-dependant" development of the brain: How "states"
    become "traits." Infant Mental Health Journal, 16, 271-289.

    Sober, E., and Wilson, D. S. (2000). Morality and "Unto others":
    Response to commentary discussion. Journal of Consciousness Studies,
    7, 257-268.

    Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly
    Review of Biology, 46, 35-57.


    Climenhage, L. J. and Krebs, D. L. (2005). From Helping to Hand
    Grenades: Setting the Bar for Altruism. A review of Kindness in a
    Cruel World: the Evolution of Altruism by Nigel Barber. Evolutionary
    Psychology, 3:208-215.

    [9]Dennis L. Krebs

                          [14]What Makes Us Moral?

             [15]Kindness In A Cruel World - Further Information


    9. mailto:krebs at sfu.ca

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