Of Dogs and Men

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the April 25, 2011 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

 

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men(1937) is unforgettable. It was must reading in our high school Literature class. Although forced to read it, I found this short novel stirring. In hindsight, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath helped shape my worldview of changing the world. In addition, the title grabs the readers’ attention. The story is sad and emotional, with a tragic and shocking ending.

Steinbeck’s inspiration for the title and the story actually comes from a line in Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse” (1785).

 

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, ?For promis’d joy!

 

The aphorism that “the best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry” thus originates from this poem.

But what connects “dogs and men,” the title of my essay, to Steinbeck’s and Burns’s mice and men?

Well, “dogs and men” became a topic of an online conversation among friends regarding the origins of altruism.  My friend Mar asked: “Would a man die for a dog, if need be?”

Mike’s answer: “Mar, I would have posed your sentence the other way around: Would a dog die for a man?”

The connection then of dogs and men to mice and men has something to do with altruism.  That is, species (be it man or dog) has evolved to become altruistic even to a non-kin. The discussion was an offshoot of a new theory that challengesthe conventional view that man’s altruism arises from kin selection. Rather, Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward Wilson argue in their paper titled “The evolution of eusociality” (26 August 2010, published in Nature) that group selection better explains altruism.

In Burns’s classic poem, man expresses concern over the predicament of mouse (and nature). Mouse and man confront the same obstacles, even thought the mouse might be more fortunate:

 

Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But och! I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear!

An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,

I guess an’ fear!

 

In Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, intelligent George’s last act of kindness to his best friend, the mentally challenged Lennie, was bloody.  George had to shoot Lennie to spare him the impending wrath and violence to be carried outby the vengeful and violent Curley. Curley and his followers were out to punish Lennie for the death of Curley’s flirtatious wife, whose neck Lennie accidentally broke in a struggle.

Burns’s poem and Steinbeck’s novel do point to examples of selfless behavior.  In Burns’s poem, man is in solidarity with a mouse. In Steinbeck’s novel, an intelligent man saves his mentally retarded friend from violence and the ensuing excruciating pain by giving him instant and painless death, even if that meant becoming a criminal.

To return to the conversation on dogs and men, the topic is not at all facetious when discussing selflessness or altruism and the competing theories that explain it, namely kin selection and group selection.

Simply said, kin selection explains an organism can commit self-sacrifice to ensure the survival and continued procreation of a relative. It thus suggests that the sell-sacrifice is essentially a selfish means to preserve one’s genes. Take note of Richard Dawkins’s book titled Selfish Gene (1976).

On the other hand, group selection theory says that species that are not related (say, the seemingly facetious example of dogs and men) are capable of being altruistic with each other.   In the same vein, Edward Wilson—credited for making kin selection definitive—observed that some species (of insects) that had common genes did not behave altruistically with each other.  For Wilson and his co-authors, the key to explain altruism, solidarity, or teamwork is not the kin but the group.

What makes the theory of Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson compelling is that it is based on empirical observations andmath equations. “Mathematics is the only theory,” Nowak said.  Further, “You want to calculate under which conditions natural selection favors the evolution of cooperation, and under which conditions it doesn’t.”  They conclude that the equations that underpinned kin selection cannot explain the natural world.  In fine, the authors said: “Inclusive fitness theory is a particular mathematical approach that has many limitations. It is not a general theory of evolution.”

To be sure, the alternative group selection theory has profound implications on how men conduct their worldly affairs.  It will paint a bright future of people in one town, one country, or between countries cooperating with one another.  This will likewise upend the assumption of many economists that men pursue their self-interest, which in the end redounds to society’s welfare.

Which leads Butch, the economist, to make this critical if not caustic remark: “Is it possible that neoliberal economies are based on an erroneous behavioral assumption? Or is it just the case that neoclassical economists are not very good mathematicians?”

I tried reading the esoteric paper of Nowak et al. It’s tough, and I’ve to read it again to gain a fuller understanding of their arguments. And besides, it’s Easter Sunday, not the time to read heavy stuff.

So, for the day, I find leisure in reading the exchange of ideas between Mike and Mar, which is more casual and easier to understand.

Mike: “The article says that kinship is a (proper) subset of a group (of not necessarily related members). Based on the math alone, if men and dogs together have better chances of survival than a group composed of men exclusively, that should be convincing proof.”

Mar: “Would a man die for a dog if need be? Kin selection theory would say no—man and dog are no cousins (not sharing genes). Group selection theory says ‘why not’ if that would increase the chances of group’s survival.”

Mike: “Mar, I would have posed your first sentence the other way around: Would a dog die for a man? Anecdotes are rife that canine pets do put themselves on the line for their human masters.”

I enjoy following this exchange.  For one thing, this discussion (on dogs and men to illustrate sets and how sets are essential in math) brings back the fun in math.


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