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Old 10-15-2007, 09:39 PM
madnak madnak is offline
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Join Date: Aug 2005
Location: Brooklyn (Red Hook)
Posts: 5,271
Default Re: Going into a burning building to save a child

IMO, empathy evolved because it had very real and practical benefits to us. How else could a trait evolve? So, giving to people who are of no consequence to you will be a misapplication of the instinct. It's an inefficient result based on instincts that come from a slightly different equation (we couldn't communicate with people on different continents until extremely recently).

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There's no such thing as the "misapplication" of an instinct. Our biological traits don't represent how we're "supposed" to act or how nature "wants" us to act, but which actions had the concrete effect of propagating the genomes associated with those actions. Furthermore, as a result of this, the traits we've evolved weren't of practical benefit to "us," but rather of practical benefit to our genes.

In my opinion, the most credible hypothesis to describe large-scale incremental changes in organisms is that genes which originally served one purpose happened to serve another purpose as well. For instance, our brain may have started to grow because we needed to learn how to identify dangerous animals such as snakes. The improvements in processing may have then allowed our brain to develop a greater capacity for communication. This communicative ability may have then made the identification of patterns possible - ie seasonal patterns in the growth of different foods. See, we didn't just set out to learn the use of tools, which is what made us the most powerful species on the planet. We set out to see snakes in the grass, and the side effect of that was communication, and the side effect of that was pattern identification, and the side effect of that was tool use.

If we had just followed the "proper" application of our insticts, we would never have evolved - finding new uses for old instincts is part of what made our ancestors so successful. It's also probably responsible for things like art, music, and philosophy. There are no "misapplications" in natural selection - some traits fail to propagate, but that's all there is to it. Only time will tell whether compassion is selected for, but unless you're obsessed with maximizing the impact of your genome it can't be considered on evolutionary grounds.
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