Saturday, February 23, 2008

Peter Watts on Evolution of Altruism

The newly-relaunched Internet Review of Science Fiction has an interview with Peter Watts, in which he talks about evolution, altruism, and sociopaths.
"No altruists in Darwin's universe." Catchy line, that. Far more appealing than "Altruists may exist, for a variety of social or developmental reasons, but they get weeded out of the population as fast as they arise," which is a more accurate formulation. And one I stand behind.

Let's start with other species, then move closer to home. There are many cases of apparent altruism throughout the animal kingdom: mother ducks caring for the offspring of another female, or a squirrel putting itself at risk by conspicuously raising an alarm call when it sees a predator—even, sometimes, when there are no blood relatives around. But when you look closely, selfish motives always seem to lurk at the heart of these behaviors. [ . . . ] And let's not forget "reciprocal altruism" (I scratch your back, you scratch mine), or the ubiquitous "kin selection"—that's "motherhood issues," to you hominids—in which we endlessly celebrate the anything-but-altruistic behavior of parents who are doing nothing but protecting their own genes.

According to Watts, sociopaths and psychopaths may actually have an evolutionary advantage, due to having lots of offspring, and the relative ease of outrunning one's reputation in modern society.
Your garden-variety psychopath breeds pretty much the same way the rest of us do—he just does it more often, with a greater number of partners, and with far less in the way of follow-up nurture. It's a classic fuck-'em-forget-'em strategy. To cite Rice again, psychopaths have way more kids than the rest of us, and even the extreme end of that spectrum—psychopathic rapists—tend to target women of child-bearing age, not kids or seniors. Sounds like a successful reproductive strategy to me.
Watts also talks about the basis of his characters in Starfish and Blindsight, unhappy endings and writing horror, and his experience as a molecular biology postdoc, of which he notes:
. . . it's been a damn sight more lucrative than writing science fiction ever was.
Definitely a caution to those of you who think that writing fiction will make you rich.

You can read Starfish, Blindsight and other of Watts' novels at short stories at

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1 comment:

  1. Amazing info/justification about psychopath rapist but it does not seem to suit the natural selection theory as it is just a disparate attempt to proliferate one's one kind and not mutually agreed/selected sexual behavior .They may be just nature's freaks like twins etc and not any purposeful natural creations.


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