The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


Kin Selectionism

One possible answer is  "kin selectionism", according to which selection operates at the level of kin, of closely related individuals, and not only at the level of the individual.

The British biologist John Haldane (“Population Genetics,” 1955) pointed out that altruism is proportional to genetic proximity. I share genes with my brother, and therefore I am willing to help him survive. I share genes with cousins too, and therefore I am still willing to help them, but I share less genes with them than with my brother so I am less motivated to help them rather than my brother. It is not the survival of the individual that matters: it is survival of as many genes as possible. Parental care for offspring has, therefore, a genetic explanation.

The British biologist William Hamilton ("The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour I and II”, 1964) argued that altruism too evolved by natural selection for a utilitarian reason: altruism helps genes as a global pool, even if at the expense of the survival of a specific individual. Altruism is just another step, beyond personal survival and reproduction, in the program to maximally proliferate the genes of an organism.

Traditionally, selection (and therefore evolution) had been viewed as driven by "reproductive success"; but Hamilton, armed with mathematical tools, extended that concept to the reproductive success of close relatives (or "kin"). Every individual has an investment in its own genetic pool. The investment peaks in its own body, but it is not limited to the body, it extends, albeit in lesser amounts, to all of its kin, and it is proportional to how closely they share the same genes. Hamilton captured the essence of kin selection (later better known as “inclusive-fitness theory”) in a simple equation that defined mathematically the concept of "inclusive fitness". The equation shows that it benefits an individual to aid kin in order to promote its "inclusive fitness". In other words, the individual is programmed to preserve not only itself but also other individuals that share a similar genetic repertory, in a manner proportional to that similarity.

Hamilton's theory provided an explanation for why parents care for their offspring and why females are “choosier” than males about their mates. Cooperation turns out to be but another aspect of competition.

Hamilton argued that selection operates at the level of the genetic pool, not at the level of the single genome.

In a sense, a family is but one organism with many organs, each member of the family being an organ. Each organ works with the others to keep the organism (the family) alive. If an organ dies but helps the others survive, it helps the organism survive. Altruism is not in contrast with Darwinism.

The US biologist George Williams then explained how evolution extended altruism beyond kinship: an individual's chances of survival are increased by having friends and decreased by having enemies. That simple. Thus it makes sense for any individual to maximize friendship and minimize antagonism. There is no need for conscious calculation: evolution has endowed individuals with "altruistic" instincts and emotions because it helps them survive. Most of the individuals who didn't have them did not survive to make children. Williams thus explained the Darwinian value of friendship.


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