Do We Get the World We Deserve? A View of Altruism Based on Game Theory Outcomes


Do We Get the World We Deserve? A View of Altruism Based on Game Theory Outcomes

Devin Bailey
Published by the PIT Journal: 


This paper explores the concept of altruism and connects it to game theory models. The analysis considers the theory of gene-culture co-evolution and concludes that altruistic behavior might be both conditioned through cultural reinforcement and also enabled by a mechanism that allows altruists to identify one another in order to promote the survival of altruistic genes. The implications of this study suggest that we might further refine our game theory models in order to better account for altruism. The outcomes of further consideration has the potential to help humans create more ideal systems of governance in the future.


Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in his “Social Contract” that “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” (1762). Rousseau believed that humans are inherently good, that humans did not need institutions such as government to control the people. In Rousseau’s eyes, government only limited the ability of the masses, but Rousseau was born into a world where others commonly made arguments based on only black or white perspectives; humans, they argued, are either innately good or evil. The concept of altruism may hold the key to determining humans’ innate nature. By eliminating the variables that the black or white systems forgot about, altruism allows us to account for the gray in society and come up with solutions to the economic and political stumbles caused by a system of black or white interpretations. This paper will set up the scientific argument behind the survival of altruism and the philosophical implications surrounding it.

True altruism is nothing more than a selfless act (Gordon 1990).  Biologically and psychologically, altruism is defined as the act of increasing the welfare of others while decreasing your own fitness (Douglas 2009). The biggest question about altruism is related to evolution and natural selection.  If natural selection only promotes survival of the fittest, then how can there be evolution of a gene that consciously risks itself to help others? Not every organism is instinctively altruistic and those who are not are called egoists. The main way that altruism is tested is through game theory experiments, which tries to account for all possible actions and reactions of two individuals, where individuals can be programmed to behave only a certain way.  The classic example of a game theory scenario is called the “prisoner’s dilemma,” according to which two bank robbers are in separate interrogation rooms and each has the option to either rat out the other for a plea bargain, or plead innocent. The best action would then come from both parties pleading innocent, since neither would be convicted and both would be let go. All other actions would result in someone being arrested.  Based on the prisoner’s dilemma, an altruist would never rat out another person and therefore always plead innocent and the altruist’s fate would then be left up to the other individual. If consecutive prisoner dilemmas are played using only the winners of each game then over the course of subsequent generations, no matter the original ratio of altruists to selfish organisms, the altruists would end up imprisoned(Hammond and Axelrod 2006). Based on the game theory, then, the gene for altruism should have ceased due to natural selection of genes. So how can the prisoner’s dilemma give such results when we know that altruism and altruists indeed exist?

The main theory arising to explain this contradiction of natural selection is a form of group evolution. Both evolutionary and psychological research scientists have theorized that altruism has evolved based on a form of co-evolution, where species cooperate as a group to enhance the viability of the entire population. For example, if women prefer to marry and have children with altruistic men because they are more likely to protect them, then the gene for altruism is guaranteed to survive, based on genetics. This theory is based on the fact that certain populations find certain traits attractive, and mate accordingly, in order to increase the probability of those traits’ survival.  The theory is called gene-culture co-evolution (Wilson and Sober 2002).

Evolutionary altruism calls into question the innate nature of the human mentality based on the mode of survival for the following progeny. Many authors argue over this topic in evolutionary altruism: for example, Richard Dawkins, author of “The Selfish Gene,”and David Sloan Wilson, research scientist,argue that perhaps altruism is not something that is genetically determined. Dawkins has a belief that is theorized in his book “The Selfish Gene,” that everyone is born selfish and has to be taught altruism in some form or another (2006). Wilson, on the other hand, in his article “Unto Others,”argues that altruism is genetic—some organisms are born altruistic and some are not, based on parental genetics (2002). These opposing perspectives have been going on since Hobbes and Aquinas. Because altruism is a leading role in human morality, these arguments imply assumptions about the innate nature of the human consciousness.  In the article by Kate Douglas simply called “Altruism,” she argues that both Dawkins and Wilson can be correct due to the possibility of gene-culture co-evolution(2009). Douglas argues that both Dawkins and Wilson are right, based on the option of free will and that humans have the ability to override their own genetics when the gene is related to consciousness (2009). 

There have also been recent advances in knowledge of neurological cells such as the spindle cells in the human brain and these cells are thought to contain the possibility of human consciousness. Altruism has been associated with the specific gene AVPR1. This gene makes the subject more vulnerable to the hormone vasopressin, which enhances the senses of happiness and consciousness (Douglas 2009).  This gene could be isolated to cure diseases such as bi-polar depression and anti-social disorder, because it works by increasing the sufferer’s susceptibility to their own hormone level of vasopressin.  Humans can manipulate this gene to either enhance their pre-existing genetics or override them.  This adds a few more shades of gray to our outlook on morality and consciousness.  

Some people think of psychological altruism as a type of programmed learning, where the selfless act of altruism is positively reinforced through an emotional state or a feeling of accomplishment and pride,ultimately causing the action to be repeated despite natural selection. In the journal “Reinforcing Functions of Altruism and Leaving the Scene,” the authors explain the difference in reinforcement between helping an individual in need and running from the scene (Stich et al. 1987).  The research tested subjects through an isolated apparatus that let them choose from fleeing a scene or helping a sufferer (Stich et al. 1987). The data revealed that the subjects were more highly reinforced to help the sufferer, rather than to leave the scene, concluding that altruists become accustomed to naturally being altruistic through a positive reinforcement after they have helped (Stich et al. 1987). This reinforcement can trigger a repetition of action, despite lowering the actor’s well being. Ultimately, repeated reinforcements can lead to a conscious decision to ignore the instincts that are accounted for in natural selection.  The authors of this study caution that natural altruists, people who are genetically encoded for altruism, were not accurately accounted for, and add that some people are duty bound for situations to help such as police officers and firefighters, since they have a job that requires them to risk their own well being, which might tend to skew the data (Stich et al. 1987). But the results indicate that when altruism is reinforced through conditioning or programmed learning, evolution is replaced by learning through positive reinforcement as the cause for altruism’s survival in our the morally grey consciousness. 

The only possibility of altruists surviving is if they cooperate with one another and stay in groups.  The article, “Evolution of Contingent Altruism when Cooperation is Expensive,” illustrates how altruism can survive when cooperation is limited: the authors suggest that a subconscious attraction between altruists, called favoritism, allows the altruists to selectively choose who to cooperate with (Hammond and Axelrod 2006).  The method used was a game theory modeling system that implements the Hardy-Weinberg equation to determine basic reproduction scenarios for large amounts of populations (Hammond and Axelrod 2006).  The different scenarios are triggered with varying levels of favoritism and set to find a mate and reproduce in order to determine the evolutionary path of the altruists over the egoists (Hammond and Axelrod 2006). The theory is that altruists can pinpoint through observations if another being is also altruistic to allow for selective mating. The results determined that favoritism alone does not hold enough weight to solely advance altruism but that favoritism needs an already dense supply of altruists in the population to advance.This is because the selfish individual will exploit the generosity of the altruists to insure its survival and in turn never show any reciprocity.

The theory of gene-culture co-evolution redefines the measures involved in previous genetics and evolution to try to account for anything outside the realm of black or white. The Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium is one of the main measurements used in genetics to try to determine the genetics of an entire population. For input, the equilibrium uses a set of fixed criteria before it can develop an honest measurement, including: random mate selection, large populations, no mutations of genes, and no genetic drift of species. Since gene-cultural co-evolution dismisses random mate selection, it therefore nullifies most game theory models that ecology experiments utilize. Since gene-culture co-evolution overlooks some of the key criteria of the Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium, Wilson and Sober came up with a new theory—the multilevel selection theory—to define population genetics. This theory was originally thought of by Wilson and Sober as a way to explain altruism (2002). They proclaimed that evolution should be conceived of as similar to Russian Matryoska dolls, where genes are the smallest doll, then cells, then the organism and finally the group, wherein each of these levels will interact cohesively with one another in order to maximize evolutionary selection (Wilson and Sober 2002). The article “Unto Others” by Wilson and Sober promotes this multilevel selection theory to explain the evolution of altruism (2002). The authors demonstrate that altruists can only survive if in a group that consists purely of altruists due to the eventual forcing out of altruists by the selfish organisms.  These groups work because reciprocity (that is, someone else being altruistic in return to the original actor) can generally be expected.  This theory has been tested and supported by game-theory models based on the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium. Since the criterion of random mate selection is ignored in gene-culture co-evolution by taking a preference of one specific gene, then the game theory models are inaccurate  If you think about it, anything taken solely for self-interest in society rarely works out due to gene-culture co-evolution (Gordon 1990). Marriages and business are prime examples to where self-interested actions alone do not often work out (Gordon 1990).

The evolution of altruism is based on gene-culture co-evolution where favoritism and cooperation assist in defining the most likely outcome for population equilibrium, which causes the game theory models to miscalculate survival rates of altruists. The argument over altruism can be overwhelming in the realm of game theory modeling.  If altruism and egoism can be accounted for, then the models could be used to override the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, to promote more advanced behavioral sciences and ecology. This model could be implemented in fields from economics to politics. Due to our globalizing world, we are moving closer and closer toward a unified society with a single collective morality. This collective morality is progressively becoming our final hope to achieve a free society where the world is at ease.  The political and economic stumbles in recent years have forced us to come up with new systems that do not rely on faulty assumptions and outdated science.  We are undergoing an intellectual revolution that holds the calling card to eliminate ignored variables and to answer the truth behind our worlds’ previous ignorance.  This modeling could possibly be biologically determined, and therefore eliminate the variable of innate human nature and end the argument over whether humans are naturally good or evil. With this knowledge, applications of philosophical politics would be innumerous.

Based on the model's results, support for various political systems, from anarchy to fascism, could be used to enhance the selected systems' pros and eliminate the systems' cons.  If everyone were naturally good, anarchy would be a supportive government since the sense of community and group work would be enhanced by the people who are a part of the group. If everyone were naturally evil, then a dictatorship would be best to control society and limit the evil actions of the group.  Based on results, anything could be accurately predicted and applied that is based on human preference and consciousness. There is little not left up to the human mind. It can nullify the greatest of pains. It can give a sense of invulnerability. It can override the Darwinian law of natural selection.  The implications point toward the power of the human mind and consciousness, suggesting that there is still hope for a system of morality that might be shared between all humans.

Sometimes morality tends to gray itself. Through the process of evolution, existence and inexistence tend to battle until there are only two choices left; to live or to perish. Morality in this time is abstract, nothing is tangible and all you have left is your will to survive. In some cases morality in the form of altruism manages through the killing fields to strive on for the good of the cultural existence and for the existence of the cultural good.



Douglas K. 2009. Altruism. New Sci 203(2720): 31-2.

Gordon SL. 1990. Review: Passions within reason: the strategic role of the emotions. Contemporary Sociology 19(3): 463-4.

Hammond RA and Axelrod R. 2006. Evolution of contingent altruism when cooperation is expensive. Theor Popul Biol 69(3): 333-8.

Stich MH, Weiss RF, Cramer RE, Feinberg RA. 1987. Reinforcing functions of altruism and leaving the scene. J Psychol 121(5): 459.

Wilson DS and Sober E. 2002. Review: Précis of unto others. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 65(3): 681-4.

Dawkins R. 2006. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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