Monday, October 17, 2016

Downturns Should Be Times of Investment, Not Divestment

Buy when low and sell when high, right?

Businesses always hoard cash and divest themselves of labour and a equipment in a downturn, usually hampering their recover when the inevitable, cyclical, upturn comes along. It also likely extends the downturn for a longer period of time. Confidence weakened or lost is hard to restore quickly, like a tree.

According The Sunday Edition item below, the 10% of companies that are taking risks are actually doing better on the bottom line.

Accountability isn’t even the norm in accounting these days. CEOs are just unwilling to risk the value of the stock options. Keeping profit continually high, without growth, is a high cost in the long run. Lower profit is still profit; as long as the bills are paid you can ride out the hard times, especially if you plan for them, like the oil companies claim when they project prices over a forty-year project term.  

Maximization of the median profits over the long-term should be the goal, not quarterly extremes. Otherwise the company devours itself from the bottom up until only the CEO remains to engage parachute. A well-run, profitable, growing, sustainable business attracts more, lasting, investor confidence than fast profit at great expense or a timid CEO unable to risk personal profit.
A downturn is the perfect time to repair, replace, retool, renovate, upgrade, and build, in order to be prepared for the upswing. Oil companies should be doing cleanup and the like now. This keeps labour employed while improving the business by investing profits from the good times when it is difficult to find time and labour.

The crew works on the ship during the calm so that they can sail at top speed through the storms. One company that I worked for introduces every major change, usually several at a time, at the busiest times, guaranteeing disaster. I fell overboard after getting through a long storm and dark night, swept over the railing by a final rogue wave. 

In 2012, Mark Carney, then the governor of the Bank of Canada, chastised Canadian companies for sitting on "dead money."
In 2012, Mark Carney, then the governor of the Bank of Canada, chastised Canadian companies for sitting on "dead money." (Reuters)
Listen 3:58
In August 2012, Mark Carney, then governor of the Bank of Canada, made a speech to the Canadian Auto Workers about corporate Canada. Mr. Carney, as you know, is now governor of the Bank of England, hence one of the most important people in the UK.
What he had to say was a kick to the delicate undercarriage of Canada's big businesses.
Governor Carney said that companies were sitting on huge piles of cash, what he called dead money. They weren't investing the money, just sitting on it.
It turns out Carney was being polite when he said the caution by Canadian CEOs might be excessive. It turns out that they are in fact scaredy cats. Chickens. Nervous Nellies. Cowards, even. - Michael Enright
"Their job," he said, "is to put money to work and if they can't think of what to do with it, they should give it back to their shareholders."

Stats Can reported that at the time of the governor's speech, companies were hoarding nearly half a trillion dollars in cash, an increase of 43 per cent since the end of the recession in 2009.
Canadian firms weren't doing enough to drive economic growth and create new jobs because the level of caution of CEOs was, in his words, "excessive."
It turns out Carney was being polite when he said the caution by Canadian CEOs might be excessive. It turns out that they are in fact scaredy cats. Chickens. Nervous Nellies. Cowards, even.
Last month, Deloitte published the results of a survey of big business which showed that fully 90 per cent of business leaders lack courage. As a result, the Canadian economy is suffering mightily, stuck in neutral, as Deloitte says. The report is entitled "The future belongs to the bold."
Now, this allegation isn't coming from some upstart startup run by nerds in linty sweaters and sneakers without socks.

Deloitte is the largest business services network in the world, with revenues this year of $36.8 billion. It works like the internal affairs division of a police department. It looked at 1,200 businesses across the country and discovered that 90 per cent lacked what the report calls courage.
The irony is that Deloitte found that the 10 per cent of so-called courageous companies did better at the bottom line than the chicken-hearted. Nearly 70 per cent of the courageous companies had rising revenues and fully 17 per cent increased their work forces. In other words, having guts pays off in terms of profits and in the doing, actually creates jobs.
- Michael Enright
This is from the report: "At a time when Canada needs its businesses to be bolder and more courageous than ever before, almost 90 per cent aren't up to the task."
It found that Canadian executives are far more risk averse than those in other countries, especially the United States.

The bad news gets worse. Canadian firms invest less in machinery and equipment than those in comparable industrialized nations. Moreover, investment in training has dropped 40 per cent in the last 20 years.

The irony is that Deloitte found that the 10 per cent of so-called courageous companies did better at the bottom line than the chicken-hearted.

Nearly 70 per cent of the courageous companies had rising revenues and fully 17 per cent increased their work forces. In other words, having guts pays off in terms of profits and in the doing, actually creates jobs.

The report points out that executives may have some legitimate concerns, as the projected growth for the country next year is only 1.3 per cent — much less than other countries. It does not offer that as an excuse for hyper caution of business leaders.
In the end, Deloitte's findings can serve as a  warning for Canadian CEOs to find a little courage somewhere and get the economy moving again.

Incidentally, the compensation for the top CEOs in this country is 159 times that of the average worker.

Everything is always in process
Only compassion defeats dehumanization.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Free Press: Should the 4th Estate be an Independent Branch of Government?

If a free press engaged in journalistic investigation in pursuit of the public’s right to know is a vital part of modern democracy, then shouldn’t it be like the Judiciary, an independent branch of government with constitutionally guaranteed funding from the people rather than unpredictable corporate investors and advertising revenue?

The media items that I post are not endorsements of the source so much as the nuggets I’ve found inside the dung pile. A lot come from CBC, particularly the show Ideas because it tends to explore the topics (just about anything) with suspension of disbelief, an open mind, and a critical eye. CBC radio comes close to what I propose. It tries to bite every hand that feeds it.  It smells rot, or thinks it does. 

The Legislative branch shouldn’t be able to silence or leash it with cutbacks and a need for ads.  Independence is supposed to help protect the Judiciary from political influence, campaign debts, and personal bias. A judge is supposed to represent, interpret, and protect, the rule of law.  An official media could absorb the functions of ombudsmen and auditors, departmental and general.  The market can keep the salacious sensationalism for ratings and ad revenue.  It’s hard to speak truth to power when it owns you. 

Of course it can go wrong and be corrupted, just like everything else. That’s why we have checks and balances and rule of law. 

I think our democracies need another firm leg to stand on. They’re toppling under the weight of profit. Also, a squared building with three cornerstones is an unsound construction.

It may also be worth considering also including the scientific research departments in order to create an overall Investigative Branch acting as evidence-based judges of information, verified for use by citizens and the rest of government without partisanship.

I was also thinking about the problem of the power of lobbyists and the former politicians who often become them. Interest groups, social as well as industrial, need money to have a continual presence in order to have a voice heard through the noise. someone in the capital able to negotiate the system and get things done. We could establish a department or office of Lobbying with civil servants similar to public defenders or ombudsmen, separate from the Investigative Branch. Available to all, interests would get a public lobbyist instead of hiring a private one, a buffer between them and the politicians that ensures equality of influence, funding, and potential success. Any other form of lobbying or direct contact between politicians and interests would be prohibited, except through the same official channels available to all citizens. 

Just a thought.

Everything is always in process
Only compassion defeats dehumanization.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Compassionate Leader is a Real Leader

Because they only seemed to accomplish the opposite of what they preached,  I rejected Roman Catholicism and Christianity a long time ago.  For a long time I believed that no pope could achieve any real lasting good because most had done the opposite.  Roman Catholicism had developed into a polytheism that practices witchcraft and idol worship. 

Witchcraft is an attempt to craft chants, rituals, and formulas that force nature or a god into granting wishes, including begging. The example of prayer provided by Christ was transformed into the first of many rote spells. Then they started adding demigods, Mary and the multiplying saints, despite being told only to pray to the father in the name of the son. In addition to be actual paragons of compassion and Christianity, all were required to perform a magic trick of faith in order to qualify, and believed to be able to influence a god.  Sculpting specific statues and images of the demigods, they started praying to them like idols.  Then the Vatican added relics and icons before deciding to sell salvation and abuse people in order to save their souls with love.  The bodies and minds were disposable. Then they used it as an excuse to start "civilizing" other cultures and religious beliefs.

Sounds like going backwards from Judaism not forward, the direction Jesus was leading.  It’s no wonder that many highly catholic areas are thick with stories of ghosts, witches, and devils.
Until now, the Vatican turned the Christian story inside out. I had given up completely on it long ago but Francis has renewed hope that the founding message of “universal” Christianity (catholic means universal) isn’t dead. I don’t believe in Catholicism, but I do in the compassionate message of the story.  Francis is the first true Vicar of Christ since Peter.   

He doesn’t have me following and bowing, but he does have my respect. He seems to obey the message regarding raising life instead of dehumanizing and abusing it.

No one is "civilized". "Civilization" is the process of developing a more productive, secure, compassionate, society. Many cultures started and spread the process, each adding different techniques and ideas into their own experiments. Africa, Sumeria, Egypt, India, and China, were among the first. Being "civilized" is coercion to look and act like a certain culture or class, absorption or assimilation into the dominant collective hierarchy.

A leader compassionately guides, nurtures, protects, and prods those for whom they are responsible. A tyrant forces to them to behave as desired. A leader is an exemplar in action, not a saint.

A compassionate leader is a real leader.

Everything is always in process
Only compassion defeats dehumanization.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Canada ISN'T Superior, Just a Little Safer and Much Colder

Adventures In Running

 This isn’t an attempt to wag a Canadian finger, just a wish to share what might be a “best practice” with our troubled, but closest, elder sibling in the North American family.

Canada has always punched above its weight, helping to beat the bullies when at our best. This might be because we don’t reach first for a gun. We don’t depend on weapons and violence as solutions. In Canada, as far as I know, you can get a gun if you want one. They aren’t outlawed. Handguns, automatics, and military grade weapons are restricted. For hunting weapons, you need to take a safety course and get a certificate of acquisition. Restricted weapons required further qualification and certification. That’s hardly the government taking away guns. We just try to make sure that gun owners are responsible and minimally educated in safety.

We don't tend to turn to conflict as an answer. We seem to resist turning on each other in a crisis, most of the time. I have never heard of looting occurring during disasters. Probably happens, but rarely. We try to pull together. We screw up a lot and in major ways, but life is a bit more safe, peaceful, and reasonable compared to what’s going on next-door. When you live in cold like ours, you have to huddle together for warmth. That’s why we’re so polite. It keeps us from strangling one another. Most of the time.

 It's just my opinion, but it seems like allowing anti-government, anti-law, and antisocial, organizations and "militias" t have large numbers of military-grade weapons is a recipe for civil war, or at least bloody revolt, seeing as the government has satellites and drones listed among the least destructive of its armoury. You might describe America's gun violence as an ongoing civil war among individuals.

Maybe the attitude difference  toward guns comes from the fights that helped form, unite, and define our countries in our own eyes. America was born in a violent revolution against an empire and then further defined by civil war that split it in half. America fought, won and defends personal liberty. Canada draws more identity from the two World Wars during which we came to the aid of a later version of the same empire and its allies. Our wars spilled none of our own blood on our own soil, the death an evil far from our shores afflicting our friends and the innocent. We gained our real independence by helping others regain their freedom. The only country that has even attacked us is you, before we became Canada, and we kissed and made up long ago. We have never attacked another country on our own or conquered land by armed force, only by dishonouring treaties and then civilizing away culture, health, sanity and life with educational abuse for generations. Far more polite than all that shooting and scalping.

We also tend to settle in groups rather than alone or as isolated families. Safety in numbers reduced the number of guns required per individual and the threat of exile into the big, cold, empty, wilderness kept most in line most of the time. Our struggle with a separatist region stretched on for decades of endless insults, claims, arguments, threats, pleas, and negotiations. There was one death by a few terrorists that cause a an overreaction of a brief period of martial law in the province of Quebec, but the fight eventually ended when the second vote came very close to separation. So close that the people who flocked there to express the rest of Canada's affection and plea for unity might have actually have pushed the thing over the finish line. The the next generation most got tired of hearing about it and the whole thing has faded into the background for now.

Maybe Canadians are tend less toward violence because it is really hard to swing and do damage with both combatants cocooned in heavy winter clothing. If you try to wrestle you can't reach around yourself to grab and  you bounce off. You can conceal a weapon inside easily, but pulling off mittens, the  unbuttoning, unzipping, and digging through pocketed layers to find your gun in a useful amount of time is a bit tricky. You may have to take a seat while you do. The gunfight starts at noon, which could be dark, and goes until dusk (maybe only a few hours later), when neither can feel their fingers any longer. Then they run inside to get warm and drunk. After a wile, we just decided to condense the process into hockey at the rink.

Also, it's hard to hurl insults when you're shivering and your teeth are chattering. Keeping warm and  just moving around in the snow and ice  takes too much energy to have any left for street violence. You just want to get off the street, inside, and drunk. Politeness and a  mild manner take so much less energy. It's a long winter and we need to conserve food, brew, daylight, and strength. Everything is far apart, so we need to be cooperatively self-reliant to make do. Necessity and Laziness are the parents of invention and efficiency, and we play them against each other whenever required, or really bored. Keeps the neck free of fingers.

Canada isn't superior, just a little safer because it's too cold, and we're too lazy, even to strangle each other. Thankfully there are no convenient killer remote-controls. If you have to get up first, you might not bother, you might not be so quick to turn someone off with a twitch. That someone might be you. Most civilian deaths by firearms are accidental or self-inflicted. The fear of making things worse with a botched suicide attempt goes away as soon as that cold hard barrel touches your head. So quick there's no time to turn back and it's painless, at least for the one pulling the trigger. It blows everyone around them away, or, if they can't pull the trigger, they go out in a "blaze of glory" that  does the same in order to force their final shot, or the cops'.

There is no "glory" in senseless death and wasted life, only dehumanization.

Only compassion defeats dehumanization.

Everything is always in process
Only compassion defeats dehumanization.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Compassion & Dehumanization, Firmly Defining Good & Evil

Good and Evil by tomhotovy

Only compassion defeats dehumanization.

Life without defined meaning has no clear purpose and little potential for happiness, just survival.

I am trying to find a better, clear definition for Good and Evil. If you aren't clear on what they mean, how can you begin to judge the balance of your actions. How do you know when you are Good? If  it's all relative, there is no morality, just opinion. It is not just benefit or detriment, positive versus negative, because both are often present at the same time. One action can produce both effects in varying proportions and an intended benefit can become an unintentional detriment. "The Road to Hell..." and all that.  Because we base everything, particularly religion, culture, laws, and politics, on these ideas, they should be better understood by all. A lack of clear definition results in a fog of confused communication that generates frustration and anger, making matters worse. Assigning different sounds and meanings to the same Latin  and Arabic symbols is what began to differentiate many European languages, for example.

It has been the historical norm that anything we view as less than human gets abused, exploited, or destroyed. No one and nothing is less than human. Composed of tiny parts, the universe and most things in it are far greater in comparison with a human. We are all insignificant and vital. Even the food-chain isn't a true hierarchy. Apex predators are continually being eaten alive, and pooped on, by external and internal microbes without which we can't survive. Ecosystems are symbiotic. Everything depends on everything else. A single reproducing virus can wipe out every lion in the world. It could take us down long before all the lions could. Everything is essentially equal and always greater in combination. Every design element, worker's touch, screw, cog, spring, fiber of wood, and particle of plastic, contributes to the orderly operation of the machine.

Only we have the arrogance to believe otherwise. To believe ourselves gods in fact, not in potential. We have dehumanized each other and the natural world in our minds and are on our way to dehumanizing the planet, literally, in fact. That's Evil.

Compassion is having the strength to help another person, or being, hold on and stand  up. The willingness to care enough to be moved to ease the suffering or disorder of another. Compassion defines Goodness and is its foundation. Dehumanization defines and is the root of all Evil. One is not the absence of the other or the opposite. They can't get confused and are definitely not relative to perspective. Our present definitions of good and evil are far to fuzzy and relativistic.

A truly consistent moral philosophy  must be grounded on firm, absolute, principles. Its foundational axioms must be stable to bear the weight of life. Good and evil have no shades between them. The move toward evil is a reduction in the wiliness to be compassionate. It is active resistance just as dehumanization is active. Good person doing nothing, staying silent, or being willfully blind, is a choice to restrain their compassion. A choice not to act. A hardened heart cannot beat. Psychopaths biologically lack compassion, born, made, or taught evil. But many more develop it through choice and practice. To become evil you have to actively turn away from good.

You can turn back. It's your choice.
A dehumanizing act can't generate compassion, it only reduces it. Thus the ends never justify the means. There is no "lesser" evil, no shades of dehumanization, only degrees of unwillingness to be compassionate. Dehumanization is never good and compassion is never evil.

Compassion isn't positivity, but it is positive. It isn't patience, tolerance, understanding, kindness, charity, or love. It is their basis and only hope of development. Dehumanization isn't negativity, it is the destruction of care and respect for life and its constituents. That makes it negative.

Dehumanization is necessary only for war, slavery, murder, assault, rape, theft , and exploitation (etc.). There is no necessary evil. Compassion is never competitive with itself. There is is no rivalry of goods, just a common good.

Quantum physics reveals that observation influences, potentially defines, what is observed. It seems there are no particles, only forces, until we observe their speed or position.  It needn't require human observation, the perception of any existent thing might be enough. A atom's "awareness" of neighboring atoms as a result of interacting or common forces and exchanged particles for example. Some form of elementary communication. Quantum particles can even be entangled so that a change in one causes the same change in the other at the same time. "Spooky action at a distance."

Engaged awareness matters and has an effect, even across apparently vast divides of space and time.

A firm definition of good and evil may also clear up other relative terms, ones that you recognize only when you see them. Dehumanization is obscene. Obscenity is the expression of dehumanization, without compassion. Art uses dehumanization in it its  techniques and images to objectify and reveal the dehumanization and subject in order to build compassion, not  reduce it. Art is communication not exploitation. The medium, tool, technique, image, object, or subject, is less than human but speaks to humanity in order to explore, reveal, and development. It can be pleasurable, entertaining, provoking, or horrifying but isn't obscene or evil unless it lacks compassion.

Beneficial drugs are compassionate in use, though can become toxic in the wrong dose or chemical circumstances. They help the person hold on and eventually stand up, if possible. Their unfortunate side-effects are problems in delivery, targeting, and the complexity of the compounds, not because they are good or evil substances. Toxic drugs and addictions dehumanize those affected.

Hunting as a game is evil. Hunting as a respectful part of a natural life can be compassionate. 

Pain and pleasure aren't good or evil in themselves. Pain can draw awareness, encourage compassion, and enable healing. Pleasure gained from dehumanization isn't good. Justice is compassionate, revenge is dehumanizing. Punishment must be compassionate or it becomes torture. Peace without compassion is tyranny. Good comedy hits us in the face with life's absurdity. Laughter is how we cope, an expression of compassion for the absurd. A good tragedy does the same from the opposite point of view. Fair-use and free-trade without compassion is exploitation.

Compassion informs beauty and dehumanization ugliness, the rest is just appearance and perception.

Look in the mirror. What do you see staring back from under the surface? Are you better able to judge the balance of your actions?

Only compassion defeats dehumanization.

 From CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition:

Sunday October 09, 2016

The Meaningful Man

Viktor Frankl wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” in nine fevered days. Tens of millions of copies have been sold in more than 30 countries.
Viktor Frankl wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” in nine fevered days. Tens of millions of copies have been sold in more than 30 countries. (Getty Images)
Listen 50:53
A chronicle of survival and a call to life, Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning continues to change people's lives generation after generation. The book is part memoir, part manifesto, and part discourse on human psychology. Written in 1946, after Viktor Frankl survived four Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Man's Search for Meaning describes how he endured the camps, and how to find meaning in the face of suffering.  
Seven decades after it was first published, it continues to inspire readers.
Chris Martin
Chris Martin says “Man’s Search for Meaning” has had a profound influence on his music. (AP/Matt Slocum)
Chris Martin, the British rock musician from Coldplay, held it close during some personally challenging times.
Mohamed  Fahmy
Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy used "Man's Search for Meaning" to help him endure pain, fear and loneliness during his imprisonment. (CP/Fred Chartrand)
Mohamed Fahmy, the Egyptian-born ­Canadian journalist, discovered it during 400+ days in Cairo's Scorpion prison.
Anna Redsand
Anna Redsand was inspired to write the biography, “Viktor Frankl, A Life Worth Living” when she saw how Frankl’s book helped kids who felt their lives were without hope.
Anna Redsand wrote a biography of Frankl geared for young readers, when she discovered that the book spoke to the adolescents she works with in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Sunday Edition
Anna Redsand, Viktor Frankl biographer
In this special hour about Man's Search for Meaning (originally broadcast in April 2016), we explore the ongoing resonance of one of the most influential books of the  twentieth century. 
We meet Viktor Frankl himself, in an interview with Roy Bonisteel of CBC television's Man Alive.
Media placeholder
Man Alive: Viktor Frankl21:15
We meet Donna Johnson, who visited Frankl's widow, and the room where the book was written; Rob McCormick, who uses the book's message in his work on Indigenous healing; Stephanie Sliekers, who Michael Enright met on a busy Toronto streetcar and for whom Man's Search for Meaning has been a cancer survival tool; and Viktor Frankl's biographer, Haddon Klingberg.\
Dr. Balfour Mount, the father of palliative care in North America, invited Frankl to Canada for his last visit here, and continues to be influenced – personally and professionally – by his ideas.

The following comes from BBC Earth. I have a suggestion for the philosophers struggling to find a better word than "Altruism" and it isn't "pro-sociality". There is such a thing as true compassion. Evolution uses random genetic mutation creating trade-off and mixed effects. Not all traits are beneficial or successful adaptions. Some are leftovers or mistakes that got carried along, like a genetic disorder or disease. Compassion is socially and individually beneficial, strengthening both beyond the cost.

There is no such thing as a truly selfless act

It is another peaceful day on the savannah. Herds of buffalo mill around, chewing the cud and flicking their ears to keep the flies at bay. On their backs, tiny oxpecker birds hop here and there to remove tiny skin parasites, unnoticed by their large hosts.
But there is a dark undertone to this tranquil scene. Closer examination has revealed that oxpeckers do more than simply clean their hosts' skin. Some of them are poking away at open wounds and feeding on buffalo blood.
It seems like even this famous symbiotic arrangement between large herbivores and grooming birds is hampered by organisms' inherent tendency to be selfish.
In fact, this might be a general rule. Mutualistic interactions in nature are often regarded as unstable, precisely because one partner will generally take advantage of the other given half a chance.
This suggests that selfishness is a dominant force in nature; an inevitable symptom of the "survival of the fittest" mantra. So is there any such thing as a truly selfless act? And how should we interpret human acts of charity?
Red-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) (Credit: Richard Du Toit/
Red-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) on a giraffe (Credit: Richard Du Toit/
Darwin was a diligent thinker. He agonised over any example he came across of organisms behaving in a way that seemed to run counter to his idea of evolution through natural selection. He soon recognised altruism as "one special difficulty, which at first appeared to me to be […] fatal to the whole theory".
"He who was ready to sacrifice his life," he fretted in The Descent of Man, "would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature." How can genes for selflessness propagate if the heroes carrying them spend more time doing good deeds than ensuring their own survival?
Not only are these animals placing the safety of others above their own, they are playing with very high stakes
All sorts of animals seem to be capable of acts of kindness. Primates groom their peers, birds warn each other when they see a predator, and African wild dogs will look after pups belonging to their fellow pack members.
These altruistic behaviours do not necessarily carry a significant cost in terms of an individual's chances of survival, but some other examples do.
Take Belding's ground squirrel. This rodent is found in the mountains of the north-western US, where it lives in sociable groups and provides a delicious snack for various birds of prey and predatory mammals.
When a predator approaches a colony of ground squirrels, the individual who sees it will delay fleeing in order to emit a series of noises, alerting its fellows to the imminent danger.
This is exactly what concerned Darwin. Not only are these animals placing the safety of others above their own, they are playing with very high stakes. Research has demonstrated that making certain calls increases the likelihood of an individual ground squirrel ending up as lunch.
Belding's ground squirrel (Spermophilus beldingi) (Credit: David Kjaer/
Belding's ground squirrel (Spermophilus beldingi) (Credit: David Kjaer/
About 100 years after Darwin first published his theory, biologists finally formalised a hypothesis that could explain such baffling behaviour.
Alarm calls are in fact a function of entrenched nepotism in squirrel society
A potentially apocryphal story helps explain the basis of this hypothesis. When J.B.S. Haldane, co-founder of the "modern synthesis" of evolution, was asked if he would throw himself into a river to save his brother, he replied: "No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins."
This is the concept of kin selection, which was formalised in 1963 by the highly influential biologist W.D. Hamilton.
According to Hamilton, the altruistic behaviour of an individual ground squirrel is easy to explain when the selfless act is put into its proper context. One animal might be prepared to sacrifice its life – and its ability to reproduce – in order to raise the chances of its relatives surviving and breeding.
Siberian jay (Perisoreus infaustus) (Credit: Markus Varesvuo/
Siberian jays (Perisoreus infaustus) warn each other when danger threatens (Credit: Markus Varesvuo/
Relatives share many of your genes, so they can be considered as proxies for your own evolutionary success and – as per Haldane's statement – the closer the relative, the better.
Kin selection might explain the most extreme form of self-sacrifice in nature: eusociality
Ground squirrels, it turns out, are a textbook example of kin selection.
Paul Sherman, a researcher at Cornell University, spent three years in the 1970s monitoring populations of ground squirrels, paying particular attention to their familial relationships. His conclusion was that alarm calls are in fact a function of entrenched nepotism in squirrel society, with individuals more likely to emit them if there are relatives nearby.
Hamilton also suggested that kin selection might explain the most extreme form of self-sacrifice in nature: eusociality.
Honeybee (Apis mellifera) workers (Credit: Chris Gomersall/2020VISION/
Honeybee (Apis mellifera) workers give up their entire lives in service of their hive (Credit: Chris Gomersall/2020VISION/
The average honeybee, ant or termite has pretty limited options in life. They inhabit highly cooperative colonies where, unless you are queen, you must pay the ultimate evolutionary price: your reproductive ability. The societies these animals form are what biologists call "eusocial" ones.
Since Hamilton, kin selection has been the most popular explanation for this counterintuitive phenomenon, although there have been various modifications to his original proposal. The fact that ants in the same colony are all sisters explains why one member might sacrifice her reproductive capacity, and even her life, for the good of the colony.
A vampire bat cannot go for more than 36 hours without a meal
Arguments have been traded back and forth over whether or not eusociality results from kin selection alone, and indeed over how significant kin selection is in general.
But whatever the conclusion, the idea of genetic ties lying at the heart of selfless behaviour is now an important tenet of evolutionary biology.
However, there is another key theory concerning altruism that has proved rather more contentious.
In 1984 Gerald Wilkinson from the University of Maryland, USA, reported on food sharing in vampire bats. This is a fairly disgusting process that involves bats regurgitating blood into each other's mouths, but it is also a necessary one. A vampire bat cannot go for more than 36 hours without a meal, so regular food sharing can save some animals from starving.
Wilkinson's observations were of note because while the bats do live in groups with other family members, they were preferentially helping those who were the hungriest, not just those with whom they shared genes.
A common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) (Credit: Dietmar Nill/
A common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) (Credit: Dietmar Nill/
What Wilkinson had uncovered was the best example to date of a concept, previously proposed by eminent evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, known as reciprocal altruism.
Reciprocal altruism is a model wherein animals help unrelated individuals and accept a short-term loss if it means a long-term gain. So if a starving bat is helped by a well-fed one, the action is done because of some deep, unconscious instinct that in the future the tables might be turned: today's starving bat might be tomorrow's well-fed one.
This suggests that all forms of altruism evolve for selfish means, at least in terms of the survival of genes
"You can think of this as 'social capital' – when vampire bats go hungry they depend on a network of family and friends," says Gerald Carter, a researcher at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the University of Toronto, who previously completed a PhD under Wilkinson. Carter has since worked on strengthening the case for reciprocal altruism in these bats, responding to claims that even this behaviour can be ascribed to kin selection.
While kin selection has seen wide acceptance both on theoretical and empirical grounds, reciprocal altruism has been harder to pin down, not least because it involves long-term – even lifetime – monitoring of animals to determine costs versus benefits.
But the real issue with both kin selection and reciprocal altruism is that, by our standards, they are not particularly altruistic. Both seem to exist only because they actually benefit the "altruist", albeit in a roundabout sort of way.
This suggests that all forms of altruism evolve for selfish means, at least in terms of the survival of genes. Trivers acknowledge this point when he stated that models of altruistic behaviour in terms of natural selection "take the altruism out of altruism".
So where does that leave humans? Surely we are capable of no-strings-attached charitable acts?
People often help strangers after natural disasters (Credit: Tommy Trenchard/Alamy)
People often help strangers after natural disasters (Credit: Tommy Trenchard/Alamy)
Perhaps we are, says Jonathan Birch, a philosopher of science at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
I have seen nothing special about the human brain
"We should distinguish 'biological altruism' from 'psychological altruism'," he says. "Biological altruism is action that has consequences for reproduction – it causes the altruist to reproduce less and the beneficiary to reproduce more."
"Psychological altruism is action motivated by concern for others – something humans do a lot."
The question is whether our psychological altruism – what we might call "true altruism" – is uniquely human or whether it has deeper evolutionary connections to the altruism seen in other animals.
Prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) (Credit: Shattil & Rozinski/
Prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) console each other (Credit: Shattil & Rozinski/
Michael Platt, a neurobiologist at Duke University, USA, who has spent years investigating the neurological mechanisms that underlie decision making in animals, thinks that animals and humans have more in common than we might imagine.
The factors motivating us to be "psychologically" altruistic are probably shared with at least our primate cousins
"From my own point of view, the notion of 'true altruism' is probably a bit misplaced," says Platt. "I have seen nothing special about the human brain that distinguishes motivated behaviours that benefit another individual compared with monkey brains, or even rat brains."
Platt and his colleagues have undertaken behavioural experiments with rhesus macaques that reveal a degree of charitable behaviour to their fellows. Monkeys, like us, are social animals, and such behaviour might be an adaptive strategy that allowed us all to build and maintain social bonds.
When the researchers conducted brain scans on the monkeys, they identified brain cells that are associated with giving rewards to another individual. Crucially, these cells inhabit a part of the brain that is active in humans when we are empathising with other individuals.
Rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) (Credit: Bernard Castelein/
Rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) are good at sharing (Credit: Bernard Castelein/
This type of observation suggests that the factors motivating us to be "psychologically" altruistic are probably shared with at least our primate cousins, and maybe other animals as well.
"When people are motivated to help a refugee from Syria, or give to Oxfam, I think that motivation is deriving from this brain circuitry," says Platt.
More than any other animals, we are products of our culture
"Of all the differences between man and the lower animals," wrote Darwin. "The moral sense or conscience is by far the most important." Does Platt's evidence that links our "true" altruism with the apparently selfish instincts of animals devalue this "moral sense", and the charitable actions that result from it?
"Some people have suggested that evolutionary explanations of morality show it to be a kind of illusion. After all, natural selection doesn't care about right and wrong," says Birch. "But I think a lot of this involves overselling the role of natural selection, and underselling the role of cultural evolution."
More than any other animals, we are products of our culture, and the addition of cultural evolution to the mix makes comprehending our own behaviour that extra bit more difficult.
"It's less clear that cultural evolution is a fundamentally amoral process," says Birch. "So a story of human altruism as the product of cultural evolution is potentially more 'morality-friendly' than a story based solely on genetic evolution."
But culture aside, there is a danger in entirely separating us from animals, and in writing off altruism by natural selection as inherently selfish.

The capability for altruism displayed by chimpanzees, for example, has been compared with that observed in young human children. A paper published in January 2016 even seems to show voles consoling each other in times of distress; behaviour that the researchers linked with similar neurochemistry to that of empathetic humans.
If we can understand why people do this, I think we will be aiming towards a greater good
"To suggest that monkeys and other non-human animals are just motivated by instinctive drives is belied by the evidence," says Platt. If we consider ourselves a species capable of selflessness, then we may have to conclude that at least some non-human species share that capability.
"Drawing a hard and fast line between humans and animals would impede progress in understanding how and why we are motivated to give to others," he concludes.
"Investigating this subject will hopefully tell us how to bring out those 'better angels of our nature'. If we can understand why people do this, I think we will be aiming towards a greater good."
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