A Matter of Perspective

I just read an interesting article about “preemptive suicide” in a species of Brazilian ant. The ants cover the entrances to their colony at dusk, and several (as many as a dozen, it looks like) remain outside the colony to ensure that the entrance is completely hidden. The ants that remain outside usually die; this is, apparently, “the first known example of a suicidal defense that is preemptive rather than a response to immediate danger.”

That’s just background. What I’m on about this morning is the quote that ends the article, from a community ecologist at OU (who wasn’t involved in the study) named Michael Kaspari, who said: “Uncovering the pressures that drive this self-sacrifice could shed light on the evolution of altruism.”

The assumption is that altruistic behavior in humans is, at root, motivated by a sort of collectivist-selfishness; a few individuals suffer and die, but the community (or state, or species, etc) benefits. The idea that an individual could sacrifice himself for reasons based on ethics or morality or love is rendered nonsense by this assumption: the individual might think he had different reasons for his sacrifice, but really it was motivated purely by a hard-wired compulsion to act for the good of the community.

Now, I realize that the end result is the same. However, the reasons we do something are at least as important, and I think far more important, than the act itself; and so reducing altruism to an evolved response greatly cheapens it. Not only that, but it has a ring of tyranny about it: of sacrifice demanded from above, for the good of the State, rather than sacrifice freely offered, for the good of one’s fellow man.

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