Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Kalman Evolves Into an Altruist


Kalman is progressing nicely in his eating skills. He has even figured out how to use a spoon. One might even say that he is in danger of becoming civilized. In observing Kalman's development, I am once again amazed by its spontaneity. While Kalman may be very intelligent, it cannot be said that he has any design for his education. Instead, he does things for his own toddler ends. It is only by a happy coincidence that his means have brought about my desired ends. (It certainly has not been due to any parenting skills on my behalf.) This can be seen in Kalman's development into an altruist with an interest in feeding me.

Altruism is a tricky issue for evolution as, on the surface, it seems to go against natural selection. An animal that gave food to someone else would be decreasing its chances of survival and passing along its altruistic genes. By contrast, a selfish animal would be more likely to survive and pass along its selfish genes until those selfish genes have taken over the entire species. Richard Dawkins has argued for kin selection. The altruist would most likely end up helping its own relatives and could therefore indirectly pass along its altruist genes even at the cost of its own personal survival. E. O. Wilson argues that altruism is more deeply rooted in the basic makeup of those species, like ants or primates, which operate in a group setting.

What I find so fascinating about Kalman's attempts to feed me is that, even as it achieves an altruistic end, it does not appear to be motivated by any conscious altruism. Give him food when he is hungry and his first move will be to feed himself. So clearly Kalman places his own welfare above that of anyone else. It is only after he is mostly satiated that he will try to feed someone else. This could be because he has developed a "theory of mouths;" he knows that putting food in his mouth stops him from feeling hungry so he might theorize that, if he puts food into other people's mouths, other people will feel full. More likely, Kalman is responding to the fact that I react to being fed by licking his fingers and making appreciative noises like the good primate I have evolved from. Kalman's brain has evolved to find this kind of social interaction to be even more pleasurable than throwing food on the floor, a perfectly reasonable option when lacking better alternatives, so he pursues altruism for his own selfish ends.

It can be hoped that Kalman's accidental altruism will come to serve as the basis for a more conscious form of altruism. His brain could develop a Pavlovian positive feedback loop from the mere act of causing other people to be fed regardless of whether they lick his fingers. As his frontal cortex develops, he will come to believe that there is something inherently virtuous about feeding other people. He will then, in the fashion of David Hume, use his considerable rational intellect to scout for people to feed in order to satisfy his subconscious passion.    

From an alternative perspective, like a good Adam Smith baby economist, Kalman maximizes his food utility. First he feeds himself. If he is full he tries to trade his remaining food for love and affection. If there are no ready mouths in which to place the food he will use the food to educate himself on the movement of objects by throwing it on the floor. In midst of this selfish calculation we also see the development of Kalman as a good Adam Smith, of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, baby. He is not solely interested in his physical benefit, but also cares about operating within a social framework in which the good opinion of others as expressed by getting his fingers licked.    


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