TORONTO, ONTARIO - If I didn't know better, I would think that the staff of WNYC's Radiolab also recently read Francis Collins' "The Language of God" and wanted to explore the topic I raised in my blog entry about altruism not being so clearly counter to evolution. This week's podcast (and show), entitled The Good Show, explored the idea of how goodness might have a biological basis.
While much of the show could be summarized as exploring different forms of Richard Dawkins' selfish gene theory, the key final segment focused on the work by Robert Axelrod. He decided to set up mathematical models of different one-on-one competitions in which cooperation was most rewarded, but one of the individuals could defeat the other. Various strategies were tested for participants, ranging from the "Jesus" participant that always cooperated to the "Lucifer" participant who always tried to defeat the other party. It turns out that a "tit for tat" participant, who cooperates if the other party cooperates but attacks if the other participant attacks, survived in basically any environment, even if surrounded by mostly "Lucifers". Indeed, as long as there were at least a few "tit for tat" participants that could find each other and cooperate, they would rout out even the "Lucifers" over the course of generations.
Granted, this is a greatly simplified model that assumes that cooperative behavior is beneficial and that the behavior of individuals is consistent. However, this implies that if a population of "Lucifers" has a few mutations into "tit for tat", the mutants that have some goodness in them can thrive. Furthermore, Axelrod found that the ideal participant seemed to be the default "tit-for-tat" but adding about 10% of its decisions as being always cooperative ("tit-for-tat" with 10% "Jesus")--that allowed the potentially-cooperative individuals to better find one another and gain the advantages of the cooperation without making them too vulnerable to "Lucifers" that would take advantage of their demeanor.
Radiolab makes the comparison of "tit-for-tat" with the Old Testament "eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth" and "Jesus" with the New Testament "turn the other cheek." However, from the standpoint of Collin's book, I think this may be the "moral code" in mathematical form. The reality of the human being "moral code" is not that of the "Jesus" stance from the Axelrod experiments. Human beings don't feel the need to be nice to people that attack them--they only tend to be nice to other people that are nice back. The "10% Jesus" represents a default stance to offer kindness until the other entity proves not to be worthy of cooperation. I think Axelrod has come up with a reasonable mathematical approximation of the "moral code"--and furthermore, demonstrated that under natural selection, it wins out.
Granted, the Axelrod experiments were simplistic simulations, and don't explain pure altruism. Yet, I don't think it's a large logical leap to go from the Axelrod experiments to the idea that the "moral code" (at least the "tit-for-tat with 10% Jesus" form) could have evolved. Furthermore, knowing that most animals have a range of traits, it's not hard to believe that the average human might be "tit-for-tat with 10% Jesus" but that certain individuals would be "Jesus" (seemingly pure altruism) or "Lucifer" (seemingly pure evil) with many along the spectrum in between.
This Radiolab episode has solidified my stand that Francis Collins is probably not correct when he makes the assertion that natural forces cannot explain the "moral code." It seems to me that Robert Axelrod has come close enough that it doesn't take much imagination to come up with a plausible evolution process.