Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Biological Basis of Selfishness and Selflessness

Dr Abe V Rotor
The hermit crab lives on discarded shell, moves to a bigger one as it grows.  Sea anemones, barnacles, seaweeds and others  live on its shell-house which it caries from place to place thus benefiting these symbionts.  In turn they provide camouflage to the hermit crab from predators, and in its search for prey. Photo credit from Internet and Wikipedia.  

All organisms, simple or complex, plant or animal – and human – are governed by genes, which through the long process of evolution, are the very tools for survival in Darwin’s treatise on Survival of the Fittest through Natural Selection.

The acquisition of successful genes is key to the survival of present day species, and the explanation on the failure of those which did not. Two words are important: adaptation and competition. This dual attributes are directed to self-preservation through the process of acquiring the basic necessities of life either by adjusting to it passively or actively. Definitely it is not one that is easy to share to the extent of losing its benefit in favor of another.

But if we analyze it, this is true to each individual. Now organisms do not live as individuals; they live as a community, as a society. Which leads us to the logical inference that if the individual organism, in order to survive must be selfish, then how can it be able to establish a community in which it ultimately become a part?

This is very important because the community is the key to resource sharing from food to space; it is the key to collective bargaining in times of peace or war. The community is like a bundle of individuals behaving singularly. It is collective planting time when the monsoon arrives, harvesting when it ends. The rituals that go with such activities enhance the success of bonding, and enshrine it into an institution.

Institutions were born from socio-economic needs which spontaneously developed into cultural and political rolled into one complex society. To answer where selfness starts is easier to answer than where selflessness begins.

If the premise is biological what proofs can we show that it is so?

• Social insects – ants, bees and termites – bind themselves as a colony. Any attack on the colony sends soldiers to fight the enemy. Paper wasps sting as intruders. The honeybee does not consume the nectar and pollen it gathers, but brings the harvest into the granary from which it get its share later. An ant clings to death at an enemy. When a bee sting, its abdomen is ripped away and is surely to die.

• Starve an aphid or a mealybug, and it will produce young prematurely – even without first becoming an adult. This is called paedogenesis. Or an adult may produce young without the benefit of mating and fertilization. This is parthenogenesis.

• A plant stressed by drought will cut its life cycle short in order to use the remaining energy to produce offspring. This is true to grasshoppers or caterpillars – they skip one or two moulting and metamorphose so that they can mate and reproduce.

• The spacing of plants is determined not only of soil and climatic conditions that control the growth and development, but by a biological mechanism known as allelopathy. A date palm will kill its own offspring around its trunk and under its crown. Those that grow outside its shadow becomes a part of the oasis’ vegetation.

• Bacteria, yeasts, and other microorganisms go into luxury feeding where there is plenty, and nature seems not to mind, until they consume the food, and worse until their waste accumulates and becomes toxic. This is called autotoxicity. Thus in fermentation, it is the toxic material - alcohol - that eventually kills the yeasts themselves, and another process follows until the organic forms of compounds are transformed and ultimately returned as inorganic ready for use by succeeding organisms.

• The dalag and many other species of fish eat their young leaving only those that can escape. Here the advantage of controlled population and survival of the fittest are shown.

• Vultures seldom attack a living prey; they wait to its last breath. A male lion will kill a cub which it did not sire. But we know too, that there are surrogate mothers in the wild like the cuckoo, and among domestic animals.

Because of the complexity of social behavior, Dr E O Wilson of Harvard University, attempted to explain many of the observed behavior into a field of biology he called sociobiology. In a simple illustration, if your child is about to be hit by a fast oncoming vehicle, a mother would risk her life to save him. Dr. Wilson would then asks a third party if he or she would do the same thing to a child who is not his own – much less without any relations.

This leads us back to our previous question: When does selfishness end and selflessness begin?~

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