Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Of rats and men: generalized reciprocal altruism

Posted by Dave Bath on 2007-07-10

A New Scientist (2007-07-07) note about rats influenced by the kindness of strangers is worth extending into the area of how the nature of a society (social democrat versus extreme market liberalism) can influence the behaviour of citizens (and even the expenses to control crime).

First, I’ll cover the paper as it discusses rats (and chimpanzees in the notes at the bottom of the post), then I’ll muse about implications for human societies.

Discussion of the paper

The lead para in NS is as follows.

If rats benefit from the kindness of strangers they are more likely to assist an unfamiliar rat in future. In doing so, they provide the first evidence of an unusual form of altruism that appears to violate evolutionary theory.

Personally, I’d say NS is wrong here, as the rat behaviour does not "volate evolutionary theory" as understood since group selection/fitness refined earlier individual versus individual selection/fitness of early Darwinism.

So let’s look at the abstract to the original paper Generalized Reciprocity in Rats Rutte, Claudia and Taborsky, Michael, PLos Biology, 2007-07-01. (The full paper is free and marked up in the preceding link, if you want PDF, get it here).

The evolution of cooperation among nonrelatives has been explained by direct, indirect, and strong reciprocity. Animals should base the decision to help others on expected future help, which they may judge from past behavior of their partner. Although many examples of cooperative behavior exist in nature where reciprocity may be involved, experimental evidence for strategies predicted by direct reciprocity models remains controversial; and indirect and strong reciprocity have been found only in humans so far. Here we show experimentally that cooperative behavior of female rats is influenced by prior receipt of help, irrespective of the identity of the partner. Rats that were trained in an instrumental cooperative task (pulling a stick in order to produce food for a partner) pulled more often for an unknown partner after they were helped than if they had not received help before. This alternative mechanism, called generalized reciprocity, requires no specific knowledge about the partner and may promote the evolution of cooperation among unfamiliar nonrelatives.

In the paper, the authors specifically rule out classical and instrumental conditioning, and concluded that:

Generalized reciprocity is hence the only hypothesis fully consistent with our results; the rats helped an unknown conspecific more readily because they received help before, even if from another anonymous partner. This is compatible with an “anonymous generous tit-for-tat”-like strategy, which was shown to establish cooperation in small groups

This was with wild-rat derived subjects – more suprising than if they used the remarkably friendly and cute Wistars..

Implications for human societies

Obviously, a high rate of violent crime is a positive feedback loop.

Slightly less obvious is the possibility that treating criminals with kindness (rather than "tough" conditions advocated by right-wing polemicists), be it by better treatment in prison, or the tendency to leniency when warranted, is better for society as a whole in the long run.  A 21% improvement in sociability can’t be sneezed at!

The paper also lends support to the claims to efficacy of the efforts of the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, the Good Deeds Organization and discussed in the Wikipedia.

Regular readers will know I’m a fan of Nordic Nannystates, and I’ll use this paper as an excuse to put my argument that a generous state, one that doesn’t make citizens grovel for every benefit, but provides good health care, education, etc, etc.

Indeed, perhaps (although this is not "generalized reciprocity" except in the broadest sense), there is competitive advantage for a nation to give more to citizens than another state (and promoting awareness of this), encouraging them to give back more effort to the state and other citizens.

Perhaps the privatization of services traditionally part of government (e.g. outsourcing of Centrelink activities) is counterproductive, and a reason why Costello kicked off a campaign to encourage volunteerism that even appeared on 50 cent coins a while back.  Maybe if a state is more giving, such a campaign wouldn’t be needed.

If rats respond to kindness by being 21% more altruistic, and we assume ourselves more capable of ethical behaviour than rats, the effect on humans should be much greater.

See Also:

  • Spontaneous Altruism by Chimpanzees and Young Children Warneken F, Hare B, Melis AP, Hanus D, Tomasello M (2007) PLoS Biol 5(7): e184

    Here we present experimental evidence that chimpanzees act altruistically toward genetically unrelated conspecifics. In addition, in two comparative experiments, we found that both chimpanzees and human infants helped altruistically, regardless of any expectation of reward, even when some effort was required, and even when the recipient was an unfamiliar individual—all features previously thought to be unique to humans. The evolutionary roots of human altruism may thus go deeper than previously thought, reaching as far back as the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees.

    When comparing semi-wild free-ranging chimpanzees and 15-month old humans:
    The only species difference found was that the helping of human infants was faster.  Differences in reaction times should obviously be interpreted with caution because of the dissimilar locomotor skills and room setups.


2 Responses to “Of rats and men: generalized reciprocal altruism”

  1. […] "Of rats and men: Generalized reciprocal altruism" (2007-07-10) also discusses chimpanzee altruism, but of the non-reciprocal (more subtle) kind. […]

  2. […] discussion of chimps and non-reciprocal (don’t expect anything in return) altruism in "Of rats and men: generalized reciprocal altruism" (2007-07-10), as well as "Human Rights: a regressive concept" (2008-05-04) and its […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: