L&Cs: Christakis on COVID and Altruism

A Big Picture item: what does our COVID response say about humanity’s capacity for altruism?

Nicholas A. Christakis, The Atlantic, 20 Oct 21: Sometimes Altruism Needs to Be Enforced, subtitled, “Controlling COVID-19 requires a selflessness that comes naturally. Ironically, we still have to coerce it.”

Christakis is the author of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society (2019).

This addresses the idea of altruism and its limits. Altruism was once thought an evolutionary puzzle; why would anyone sacrifice himself — removing their genes from the future genepool, foreclosing any direct descendants — for a stranger, or even a family member? The family member part was solved in the 1960s, with the idea of kin selection. The stranger part as been addressed by E.O. Wilson and Joshua Greene, among others, as about the tension between individual selection and group selection. That is, every person lives their life as a choice between, to put it crudely, helping others vs. cheating others. And everyone’s life is some blend of these, at one level or another.

Christakis wonders why so many people are so resistant to wearing masks, and takes it from there.

Some people are clearly more altruistic than others. But even these super-cooperators can’t do all the heavy lifting alone. Haphazard or individual-level efforts to be helpful are rarely sufficient to keep cooperation going in a larger population. For one thing, a cooperator surrounded by noncooperators will usually stop being helpful—for who wants to be a chump? Yet devolving to an “every man for himself” dynamic is injurious to all. That’s no way to fight a plague.

And so the survival of our species has depended on the evolution of innate responses to keep these so-called free riders mostly in check, to make sure that there are enough people willing to run into burning buildings to save lives and a lot fewer who light fires. Evolution has equipped us with tools to help tip the balance toward cooperation. And we need to use all of those tools in our current predicament.

And then explores how groups tip back and forth between dealing with cooperation and free-riders.

What are these responses shaped by our evolution? The first is that cooperation is more likely when a group faces a shared enemy. That we already have, in the form of this nasty virus.

Another is that people are more likely to cooperate if they anticipate future interactions with the same people. This is one reason people are likely to wear a mask at work with familiar colleagues but skip it when they shop in a grocery store.

The essay goes on about punishment and ostracism to foster cooperation (a theme that is part of much of human society), how to set worthy goals, and the capacity for centralized enforcement, “precisely to tamp down on selfishness and abuse.” (Comment: in small communities without “centralized enforcement,” gossip serves the same function.)

Thus, in response to Biden’s announcements of vaccine mandates for employers and federal workers, Christakis says:

From the viewpoint of our innate capacities for cooperation, both Biden’s practical responses and his emotional framing are to be expected. We do not need to see these actions in a negative or even authoritarian light. They are not simply the workings of our political system. They are rooted in our ancient past, helping us survive.

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