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Matthew 7:12

March 15, 2012

For my many and various sins I have, for the last few months, been engaged in one of the strangest email exchanges of my life.   It started when a pro-NLP editor on Wikipedia set up an account to attack the Cynefin and Dave Snowden articles.  He lasted about a week before he was permanently banned, but that was the trigger for a series of abusive emails to the Cognitive Edge web page.  Now I could have just ignored them but a whim saw me write back and the exchange developed.  A casual comment resulted in the discovery that he was also a Randinista, thus representing two of my bête noires in one person.  I am still surprised someone can be a member of both these cults as I had thought they were mutually exclusive, but you live and learn.

To come to the point, one of the current subjects in this exchange is that of altruism.  Hence the image that heads this post.  The opposition to altruism is a characteristic of Randian objectivism and to give you a sense of the “argument” I quote from my correspondent.

it is very important to grasp “altruism” entails the use of force and to distinguish it from benevolence and selfishness

Now this is part of a general mantra that all tax is wrong and an act of violence by the state etc. etc.   Personally I find it deeply disturbing that this particular cant is at the heart of several US political movements.  So I think its morally wrong.  However its also increasingly clear that the mantra of individual selfishness is poor science.  Dunbar for example argues than human language is an extension of grooming behaviour in apes and that interdependence is a key aspect of our evolutionary history.  He suggests that neo-cortex size and group size have more to do with the quality of relationships than they do with their quantity.  The famous Dunbar's number of 150 is also roughly the number of progeny that can be expected over four generations given birth rates in hunter-gather communities.  Sympathy group size is around 15 which matches other anthropological work on limits to trust.

All of this shows that we are social creatures.  The issue for our future is how do we adapt evolved capability for hunter gather communities into modern city states and a resource starved world?  I am not sure of the answer here, but I am convinced that selfishness is an inhibitor and altruism is an enabler of our future.

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