Monday, May 14, 2007

Biological musings, insomnia

Sitting in evolution class today, learning about relatedness and altruism in a biological context, it's almost impossible not to relate it to humans. I may launch into a more comprehensive explanation later on, but the basic concept that got me rolling was "altruism" in animals, in almost every single case, can be related to personal benefit. Either direct benefit through relatedness -- you help your sister raise their kids and some of your genes (also in your sister's kids) still get passed on to the next generation. Or through delayed reciprocity -- you help another couple of birds build their nest and raise their young because there is a lack of females around, so when her current mate dies you will very likely be his successor.

An important understanding is that the passing of genes isn't a conscious decision. Behaviors that successfully pass genes to the next generation themselves get passsed to the next generation. This fixes those behaviors in populations. It's not a personal thing, it just happens.

So how does this relate to humans? If you do the cold math, it would mean that if a passel of people were floating by in a river and would drown without help, you'd save the ones most closely related to you. You'd save brothers over cousins, and second cousins over strangers. Behavioralists have looked at whether these equations (that work pretty dam quite well in the animal kingdom) work out for humans, and in general they turn out to be quite true.

Humans are weird of course, especially now that culture puts such a huge emphasis on thought and intellectual property. New concepts need to arise to accomodate the value of passing on thoughts and ideas, placing them nearer the value of a purely biological heritage. Nowadays people want to pass their ideas along as much or more than they want to pass on their genes. This is where the term Meme came from.

And that is where this musing starts to wander far enough afield that I'll let it go for now.

At the beginning of this post I was going to make some reference to how the post might be odd or badly written because of lack of sleep. And then I realized, I have either referenced or wanted to reference lack of sleep in every post for the last week and a half. Or nearly so.

I'm starting to think this blog should have been called an insomniac's journal. I will be heading to the acupuncturist after Injury Avoidance class today to set things straight, so soon I trust the issue will be moot.

I know it's ravenously engaging for my readers -- no, really!

Enjoy your day,



Keep Portland Weird said...

The "relatedness" theory holds up in crisis situations, but what about other situations such as Hurricane Katrina, in which thousands of volunteers are still giving up vacations and money to help total strangers? I think there may be a broader force in play: the "sacrifice" of oneself to save the larger social organism to which we belong. We hear in common sayings such as "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine" or "What goes around comes around." At any rate, it's an interesting subject.

Marty said...

I think it was Freud who said "Everyone does everything to get laid" I may be paraphrasing a bit.

Bpaul said...

Yep, perfect example of where humans veer widely off into their own way of being.

Putting everything on the line to save one wounded comrade in war is another -- absolutely doesn't fit these simple biological models and yet are consistent for human behavior under these circumstances.

I'll be leaning my conversations heavily to the animal/biological side and just let folks ponder the human end of the spectrum on their own I think. It is a huge can of worms, and an interesting one, I agree.

Bpaul said...

LOL Marty, we simultaneously posted.

Freud, in my opinion, had some of human behavior well described. But the range and depth is limited. Outside of the circumstances he studied ("modern" and "western" etc) much of his work falls down.

However -- in most circumstances I run into day to day... your quote holds a lot of water, LOL.

Shocho said...

Your blog is so much better than my blog, cause all I do is post links and you write lots of stuff even though sometimes it's scientific and techncial and maybe I don't read it all but I appreciate the fact that you put together several paragraphs and make them available each day.

Bpaul said...

Bah, no comparison. I mean, I appreciate the props, but you've had this thing going for a long long time, I'm still a newb upstart. Different scene altogether.