Altruism in peace and war

peace and war by Jayel Aheram
Science: War, Trade, and the Origins of Social Behavior:
[Via AAAS News – RSS Feed]
Science: Two Studies Consider New Possibilities for Emergence of Modern Human Behavior

Population growth, migration, and other demographic changes among our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have played a major role in the evolution of modern human social behavior, as these changes affected how groups fought, traded, and shared ideas with each other, a pair of studies suggests.


The first study indicates that groups containing altruistic individuals would have been more successful at warfare than those made up of more selfish types that would only fight for relatives. While seemingly counter-intuitive, in a social dynamic setting, it makes sense. Groups made up of people who were willing to die for their friends and neighbors were more likely to dominate those who would only die for their family. This would increase the chances that they would have descendants to pass their genes on to.

Altruism has been a bugaboo for some people. Those that seem to think that evolution requires every person to only care about themselves, that evolution is all about selfishness and screwing anyone that gets in the way of reproduction. They do not appreciate the different strategies that different species can take to spread their genes around.

In a social animal, it become easier to reproduce when the social group survives. Helping the social group, even if it involves people who have no genetic overlap, can enhance the group and promote survival. It appears that this would include perhaps dying for people even if they were not related at all. The group would more likely survive and pass on the genes supporting that behavior.

The results of this study “suggest that prehistoric warfare was sufficiently common that altruistic behaviors could have evolved because they improved a group’s chances to win lethal conflicts.”

The second study indicates, though modeling, that the spread of innovative tools , art, and even musical instruments was more likely due to social interactions between migrating groups of humans than a hardwired change in cognitive function. That interactions between groups helped spread new ideas.

Sounds like those humans from 50,000 or more years ago were a lot like us. During times of peace, they altruistically traded and spread ideas around because doing so enhanced each group’s survival. And then, during times of war, a united social group, one where everyone fought for each other, would dominate others that were split or would only fight for family.

A nice explanation for why altruism is a useful human strategy, both in times of peace and times of war.

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