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Pathological altruism: More trouble for Darwinism?

At Wall Street Journal, James Taranto introduces us to pathological altruism, when “helping” people proves destructive, often appearing as “co-dependency”. Co-dependency means that a person may be helping a loved one who is a substance abuser stay an abuser, because it feels so good to “help.”

A concise recent paper by Oakland University’s Barbara Oakley, “Concepts and Implications of Altruism Bias and Pathological Altruism,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, points out that

“the vital topic of codependency has received almost no hard-science research focus, leaving ‘research’ to those with limited or no scientific research qualifications.” That is to say, it is largely the domain of pop psychology. “It is reasonable to wonder if the lack of scientific research involving codependency may relate to the fact that there is a strong academic bias against studying possible negative outcomes of empathy.”

“Empathy,” Oakley notes, “is not a uniformly positive attribute. It is associated with emotional contagion; hindsight bias; motivated reasoning; caring only for those we like or who comprise our in-group (parochial altruism); jumping to conclusions; and inappropriate feelings of guilt in noncooperators who refuse to follow orders to hurt others.” It also can produce bad public policy.

Like the home ownership fiasco/mortgage meltdown or the student loan crisis. Neither policy sprang from a desire to oppress, but both ignored warning signs about the ambiguous nature of the help offered (people in over their heads financially are not likely to be better off).

One might add to the list at least some environment policies that cost jobs, reducing the tax base. The problem is that the more affluent a community is, the better it can afford environmentalism. The beleaguered residents of a jobfree town can’t afford to care much about the environment.

The gentrified, by contrast, can buy free run eggs and veggies from local organic producers, and pay taxes to set aside large tracts of land permanently for wildlife and native plants. Isn’t it nice to have the money to act on what you believe in? But you need a good job in a viable industry for that.

The person smitten with altruism for nature may or may not be willing to face up to the reality of these tradeoffs. It just feels so good to carry a sign to Ban This and Stop That.

Re “a strong academic bias against studying possible negative outcomes of empathy,” here is one explanation: Darwinism accounts for altruism as positive, because it supposedly aids survival and reproduction.

Well, maybe it does. Maybe not. For sure, serious discussion of the down side of altruism tends to be rejected in part because it calls into question the underlying Darwinian assumptions about its very origin. Indeed, there was a paper war recently between E. O. Wilson and the many angry Darwinists who had espoused his earlier theory (kin selection, you spread your selfish genes by helping your kin).

Then he renounced his own theory in favour of pure selfish gene selection, a deeper, purer faith in the Beard if you like, leaving the kin selection/group selection followers stranded. But it was all strictly a case of Darwin vs. Darwin.

If altruism is not reliably positive, the Darwinian explanation of its origin does not work very well.

But never mind, when Darwinism collides with reality, reality is just more roadkill.

Hat tip: Brains on Purpose

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3 Responses to Pathological altruism: More trouble for Darwinism?

  1. The human capacity for altruism—unselfish giving—creates another problem for evolution. As one evolutionist noted: “Anything that has evolved by natural selection should be selfish.” And many humans are selfish, of course. But as he later acknowledged: “It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism.” Another scientist added: “Altruism is built into us.” Only in humans is it practiced with an awareness of the cost, or sacrifice, that may be involved.

    The Bible explains that humans are made in the image of a just and loving God and are able to live moral and good lives; evolution, with its emphasis on the struggle to survive, is at a loss to explain the human qualities of love and altruism.

  2. Yes, altruism is unselfish by nature and that in itself is a problem. But some Darwinists claimed that unselfishness could positively help spread a group’s shared genes (kin selection). The problem is that altruism often functions destructively, so it is bot possible to build a firm theory on it.

  3. Yes, altruism would help with kin selection. But that does not begin to explain why people are inclined to help the sick, infirm, and weak, which is what true altruism is. And that is where Darwinian evolution fails.

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