Sunday, January 19, 2014

Why do we do Good?

Biologically, what prompts us to consider some things as good and drive us to do those things? Like in other fields, science does answer the question of morality and ethics.

The biggest advance in biology since Darwin was the proposal of 'selfish gene theory' by Richard Dawkins. Even before Darwin, biology was searching how individual organisms evolved, and Darwin in his master stroke described how nature, though subconsciously, selected the most adapted organism to its surroundings, from a group of random variations in successive generations. Richard Dawkins showed that individual organism is only a temporary association between genes, in a constantly flowing digital river of genes, in which they mix and match and form temporarily associations, and that evolution works at genes' level.

There's only a faint definition of organism. For example, many of the commensals, that's friendly organisms residing inside another organism, can be regarded as belonging within that organism itself, since they often dont have independent existance. There are many microbes residing inside our body also, and they simply propagate between people, and never exist outside them. The extreme form of this symbiosis is, within our individual cells, where there are organelles like mitochondria, which were independent organisms at the start of life, and then, became permanently to reside inside other cells, and now they are not considered as separate entity at all. We often refer to 'our' mitochondrial genes.

Dawkins proposed that evolution works at the level of genes, and those that happen to possess qualities to adapt its owner/s to their surroundings survive. Genes adapt all kinds of strategies, they not only make their owners behave in their ways, but also form associations with those genes, which help them to propagate themselves more. The genes don't do it with a purpose as we see it, but those which happen to possess self serving abilities (to make more copies of self) survive and evolve.

A species happens to be only a temporary association between a group of these genes, in the vast time line in the history of life, and the gene's strategy to survive extend beyond the physical limits of an organism (like the flu virus making us sneeze). A species share a common genome among itself, and only a fraction of this genome varies among the individual organisms of the species, which gives them individual identities, and these may be called variable genes. The purpose of the gene is served, if it either succeeds in making more copies of itself, or even help identical genes in the other individuals of the same species to propagate themselves. The individuals of species who are more closely related to one, is more likely to a common set of variable genes of the species. In fact, siblings share half of an individuals' variable genes, parents also share half, second degree relatives share only one fourth and third degree relatives share only one eighth. So, if an organism care for its closest relative, that's siblings or kids, and see that they survive, in a survival situation, they make sure that at least half of their genes survive.

So, it's in the genes self interest, that it should see to it that, it makes survives, and makes more copies of itself. But then, why do we see sometimes organisms help each other, cooperate, even sacrifice? We see that, by helping those individuals that share it's genes' copies, they in fact help themselves, or to be more precise, their own genes. In a survival situation, sometimes it may be even beneficial than own survival, to help a related organism, who may be carrying only a portion of it's genes, but has more chances of survival and propagation. So that explains our being good to others. We are not uniformly good to all, but, we love our kith and kin more. We love our spouse, even though it is not related to us, and it's as align to us as any other individual of the species, since it helps our children, who carry half our genes, to survive.

This not only explains why we are good, but also, the selectiveness in it. Another way to help own set of genes to survive, is by preventing alien set from doing so. That explains why we are bad towards others too. The ratio of goodness to badness in our attitude towards others is determined, hence by our degree of relation.

Sea Lions are organisms that live in land and sea, and lay eggs. They tend to their eggs, and help them hatch. There's  population of Sea Lions who live on rough rocks by the sea. When they sit to hatch their eggs, occasionally a few eggs roll out, and they immediately hold them and bring them back under themselves. There's also a population of Sea Lions, who live on smooth rocks, where eggs roll out more and also far. These individuals, when an egg is seen rolling, they break the egg, rather than bring them in to hatch. The difference in behaviour of the two sets of Sea Lion populations is because, in smoother rocks, more eggs roll, and also they roll farther, so, when one spots an egg near it, it's more likely to be egg of another Sea Lion than it's own, so, they break it, there by reducing the competition to it's children, when they come out!

So, selfish gene theory explains us why we are good, why we are more good to our close relatives, those of our own cast, and nation, and also, why we can be as bad as it can, at certain times, towards others. Our genes feed us these instincts, to serve their own purpose! As with theory of evolution, this explains our goodness and evil, in a very simple and elegant manner, without resorting to convoluted stories of sky dwelling creatures and their evil counterparts.