May 21, 2010

Volvox Carterii and Death of 'Selfish' Altruism

Recently there was a study done on the Volvox Carterii (pictured to the right), that managed to isolate a gene responsible for altruism in that bacteria. I will do my best to summerize the information that will be relevant for this post, but the news article and be found HERE, and the real article can be found at Molecular Biology and Evolution 2006 23(8):1460-1464.

The Volvox has a gene called RegA that, when active, suppresses cell growth. Volvox cells need to be a larger size to reproduce, so that suppression of growth creates the situation where that cell can no longer reproduce. This can be described as that cell making an altruistic decision for the team, it sacrifices its own genetic well being for that of the other cells around it. 

What I find interesting about this and that didn't really hit me until now is the effect this might have on the psychological reasons for Altruism in people. There is a faction of people who believe that the only reason people are altruistic in situations is for there own rational personal benefit, and I think the evolutionary beginnings of altruism shows that this isn't the case. An example of the idea of selfish altruism would be someone saving a person who is drowning, because their conscious wouldn't let them sleep if they didn't. Thus the persons motivation for saving the other person is of a selfish nature, they did it for themselves rather than to save the other person.

This is generally characterized as an unfalsifiable thesis, any persons act can be rejustified as self to some degree, even when that selfishness is just feeling bad about not doing anything. This changes with the volvox. Isn't capable of foreseeing or rationalizing any actions it takes, it is simply listening to the genes tell it what to do. It can't be argued that the volvox cells are not growing because it would feel bad if the other cells weren't able to function correctly. This isn't to say there is no benefit to what those cells are doing, if there wasn't they would be selected agianst and no exist for very long, it is saying that there is no possible way that the volvox is acting altruistically with a knowingly selfish motivation.

Now the counter-argument that I know this will meet is that, the volvox is much different than a person, it is a simple bacteria, and humans are much more complex and can rationalize every action they take. Not only that there may not be a single gene for altruism in people, it is probably a plethora of different factors that leads to altruism in people.

This is alright, if the bird that fakes an injured wing to distract predators from its nest, and the volvox cells gives up its opportunity to reproduce, with no rational basis for their decisions. Even infants have been found to have an altruistic nature. If all other animals and pre-rational humans all can act altruistically without it being a selfish altruism, then why is it as soon as someone becomes rational all their altruistic actions become selfishly motivated. It is glaringly obvious that altruism can exist without rationality, so why is altruism all of the sudden dependent on rationality in humans. Just because something can have a selfish motivation doesn't entail that is has to and to characterize it that way without reason is simply naive.  

Thanks for reading,

The Moral Skeptic


  1. Well this is the first I've heard on the subject since reading Dawkins many years ago. I don't have an expensive education but find the logic attached to Dawkins arguments incredible palatable.

    If you subscribe to the ultimate power of the gene to govern underlying behaviours (and it governs the very gender and eye colour of us all) then this surely must nothing less than world peace.

    The other interesting point of speculation, is how popular a subject altruism was amongst authors, 2-3000 years ago and manifest in such popular titles as "The Bible" and "Qu'ran" ..... :-)

  2. Thanks for the comment, one of my favorite books happens to be the Selfish Gene. I found it extremely engaging and interesting, but I also am interested in E O Wilson and Stephen J. Gould. I don't understand the world peace comment though...

    I do agree that would be an interesting topic, but I don't think I have the historical background to even begin the speculation.

  3. Volvox is an alga, not a bacterium. More importantly, it is colonial. Doesn't each cell in it have the same genes? In that case, it's not exactly altruistic, is it?