Suffering from a full computer breakdown, my IBM Thinkpad has become sucpiciously reluctant to re-install Windows. Instead, I’m now running Ubuntu linux. For the most part it is not just comparable to Windows, in many respects it’s even better.
So what does this computer havoc have to do with the brain, or ethics at all?
Ubuntu is a totally free computer software, a fully operational operative system that replaces Windows fully. As in the core spirit of the linux movement, everything is free. So who benefits — besides myself — from this genuine altruism? I’m actually quite puzzled as to how I could explain that someone would spend a lot of their time making software without charging me anything for it.
Maybe a quick look at the latest publications on altruism could give me a hint? Here, Fletcher and Zwick write in a forthcoming paper, that:
The evolution of altruism does not require either reciprocity or kinship. What is essential is only sufﬁciently non-zero-sum beneﬁts for heritable altruistic behaviors and sufﬁciently non-uniform interactions among individuals with these behaviors.
(…) both strong and weak altruism can evolve in periodically formed random groups
of non-conditional strategies if groups are multigenerational
I find that hard to understand in terms of Ubuntu and linux developers and myself. But wait: although we will probably never see each other, and there will be no “periodically formed group”, the internet might actually provide such forming of commonalities across borders. A virtual altruistic movement indeed. And I particularly like the work of Ernst Fehr, the essence captured in the abstract of a recent publication:
Human cooperation represents a spectacular outlier in the animal world. Unlike other creatures, humans frequently cooperate with genetically unrelated strangers, often in large groups, with people they will never meet again, and when reputation gains are small or absent. Experimental evidence and evolutionary models suggest that strong reciprocity, the behavioral propensity for altruistic punishment and altruistic rewarding, is of key importance for human cooperation. Here, we review both evidence documenting altruistic punishment and altruistic cooperation and recent brain imaging studies that combine the powerful tools of behavioral game theory with neuroimaging techniques. These studies show that mutual cooperation and the punishment of defectors activate reward related neural circuits, suggesting that evolution has endowed humans with proximate mechanisms that render altruistic behavior psychologically rewarding.
So what about the brain during altruistic behaviours? We know that social cognition involves the prefrontal cortices, at least the orbitofrontal parts of the OfC. But in what way? Here, Rilling’s fMRI report states that:
Mutual cooperation was associated with consistent activation in brain areas that have been linked with reward processing: nucleus accumbens, the caudate nucleus, ventromedial frontal/orbitofrontal cortex, and rostral anterior cingulate cortex.
And they furthermore propose that
activation of this neural network positively reinforces reciprocal altruism, thereby motivating subjects to resist the temptation to selfishly accept but not reciprocate favors
So, in Ubuntu makers’ brains, there should be a set of reciprocal atruistic processes going on. I wonder whether we would see any difference between linux and Windows makers (and add Macdevelopers to the latter group). Or what about people running Windows vs. those running linux or unix? Would we find any group differences in such designs, either in morphology or function? I guess not, but remember that we do know that there are studies reporting differences in brain functions relative to product preferences such as Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola. So what about Windows vs linux? Mac against Windows?
Here, at least, is my contribution to the Ubuntu movement. Cheers!