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Altruism and the evolution of bigger brains

I hope that my proposed topic isn't one that's been done to death ...

Professor Dawkins will be visiting my other half's workplace on Friday, and there is the chance that there might be a Q&A session. My other half is an atheist who is only just about to open The God Delusion, and he's therefore asked me to think of a 'child-friendly' (read: no religious issues because the kiddies might be scared) question which he might ask.

I have been thinking about some of the things which interest me about human behaviour and evolution, and have reflected about the following:

Our selfish genes can benefit from altruistic behaviour - metaphorical behaviour at the gene level, and literal behaviour at the organism/species level. Altruism carries an opportunity cost which natural selection may seize upon when it comes to best using the resources available to you in order to reproduce (i.e. diverting resources to assisting those in need may negatively affect your reproductive success). We set alongside this the selection pressures which favoured the evolution of larger brain capacity in our ancestors.

My quandary is this: how do the two influence each other? It is a high-minded thing to assist those of our species (or others) in need. We can expect many of those unfortunate individuals never to reciprocate our own goodwill. It may be a symptom of a bigger brain capacity and a contributing factor to the reality that we have in many ways side-stepped our selfish genes and natural selection to build some of the societies and values we see today. But do the early steps towards this not find themselves thwarted by other ancestors who continue to be big-brained and 'selfish'?

It's a bit chicken and egg, really; did real altruism come first, or did we develop it only after we had our 'big brains'? Or are the two somehow linked?

Far too long a question to actually ask, but I'd be fascinated to hear some thoughts on it.

TAGGED: BEHAVIOR, EVOLUTION


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