November 13, 2009

Is Obama Inspiring Black Adults To Step Up? The Nature Of Altruism, Part 1

no, I got this

This isn't about race.  So take a breath, let's go.

CNN article, "Is Obama inspiring black men to step up?"-- in this case, to become a Big Brother/Big Sister volunteer.

[Obama] was giving a televised speech challenging men to get involved in their communities.  The men [gathered in a barbershop] had heard the message before, but this time they could relate to the messenger. Obama had shared their struggles...but had never used his struggles as an excuse. Nor could they anymore, some of the men decided. Seven joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of America that morning,
It took Obama to make this happen-- no prior figures of inspiration?  Is the resolve of someone who impulsively joins the Big Brothers because the President was making a speech worth betting on?  etc.  But, in fact:

At the Atlanta chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, Rita Owens, the vice president of development, says she hasn't seen any more black men volunteer since Obama was elected.

"We can't see any influx of black men volunteers," she said. "We do not have enough black men stepping up. We have more Caucasian men stepping up."

Before you start talking race, my first thought reading this was about 9/11.

I was working a hospital that day, and many people, especially nurses, wanted to go to NY to help out.  But they wanted to take off work to go do it.   In other words, they wanted to volunteer instead of doing their job.  "But they need volunteers!" they'd argue to the refusing nurse manager. "We all need to make some sacrifices."  Of course, in doing so, they were volunteering the people left behind for double shifts.  That's the part they didn't seem to get.   

So here, "seven joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of America that morning."  Great, they want to help a young boy in need of a role model.  But do these men have kids of their own?  It's one thing if they're living with their kids and want to give something extra to others.  But if they're living apart from their own kids, why not just spend extra time with them?

Because doing "your job" isn't as rewarding as "sacrificing." 

Here's what happened on 9/12 at my hospital, and what happens in so many cases of high-emotion altruism: they take the day off in order to go to NYC, but then don't actually go (car wouldn't start; heard on the radio they were blocking volunteers, etc).  They win: they get the reward of the sacrifice, perform no actual sacrifice, and get the day off.  Meanwhile, someone else had to sacrifice to cover their responsibilities.

I think Rita Owens meant the statement "more Caucasian men stepping up" as a jab at  blacks to get them movitated, but if it is factually accurate then these Caucasians are idiots.  Really?  Big Brothers?  That's the call you heard?  Whites seem particularly prone to manic devotions to faddish volunteerism inspired by celebrity that are transparently self-aggrandizing.  And temporary-- they inevitably quit when the next fashion comes along.     Keep in mind that the Caucasians she is talking about joined Big Brothers not because they just learned it existed, but because they were inspired by Obama.  How long is that going to last?

"How can you even question the integrity of someone who joins Big Brothers?"  I'm not. I'm questioning the integrity of someone who is going to soon quit Big Brothers.  I'm questioning what message that delivers to a) their real kid; b) the kid they will be soon abandoning.

It's going to take way more than Obama to generate any kind legitimate social consciousness in us.  No, I don't mean a Prius/vegan sort of consciousness, just the basic kind where we are aware that all of our actions have a blast radius, and other human beings are in it.


What is not intuitively obvious is the psychological motivation of the people left behind: why do they do double duty and let these fakers get away with it?  Why, when the man says he's going to spend resources on someone else's kid, does the biological mom of his kid not hit him with a sack of batteries?  More importantly, why has this complementary behavior (guy volunteers, other guy forced to pick up the slack) been allowed to exist in human society?  We don't pee on each other anymore, so why do we allow this?

There are two ways to look at it:

By definition, altruism means sacrifice; if there's an emotional "I want to help!" benefit, then it's not purely altruistic (doesn't make it bad, just not altruistic). 

Or you can take a strictly biological view of altruism: it results in a decrease in reproductive fitness, i.e. progeny.  Biological altruism doesn't care about intent; only that the action benefits others at reproductive cost to itself.    Worker bees, who give up their ability to procreate, behave altruistically. The above volunteers, also under this definition, are not behaving altruistically.

If you want to stick to evolutionary psychology, then the behavior of the above volunteers can be understood as the opposite of altruistic, it is self-promoting in the interest of reproduction.  In other words,  these temporary displays of volunteerism are chick magnets.

But under almost any definition of altruism, the real altruists are the ones left behind.  The worker bees who gave up sex for hex.

Think, for a moment, why you think worker honeybees are worker honeybees.  You probably figure it's "genetic" i.e fixed, but honeybees are totipotent-- the females, as larvae, can become either queen or worker.  Furthermore, as adults, they can choose to change again, by activating or deactivating their ovaries.  It's up to the individual, not decided by God.  Despite this, 99% of  females decide to become sterile workers.

The reason they do is twofold.  First, the amount/kind of food given to larvae is restricted so that there isn't enough to become a queen.   Next, if a female chooses to have some babies, those babies are promptly killed by the other adults, with amazing efficiency.  This process discourages the workers from laying any eggs in the first place.  This isn't some slow evolutionary process; they're actually killing babies in there, on purpose.  This is a guaranteed way of getting the civilization you want, and fast.

When there is no queen in the hive, the killing of babies is reduced or stopped, until a new queen is made.

The altruism of worker bees is socially coerced.

Part 2 coming.