Delayed gratification and the evolution of altruism

Well, as I actually don’t have any data at hand to suggest altruism may have arisen in human populations prone to accepting their gratification at some downstream point in their struggle, I’d better not lead off with that one.

And my personal brand of science – plant science – really doesn’t prepare me to wax philosophically about much of human behavior.  But this has hardly stopped me before.  So here I’ll pray Dr Smaje can be called upon to straighten out my missteps in the realm of human motivations and their resulting consequences.

Another blogging hero of mine has recently regretted the prodigious growth of a nasty pigweed among his crowder peas.  Weeds are an unfortunate reality, and thick nasty weed growth can be a serious affront to the merry enjoyment of a garden.  A few weeds, easily dispatched, can bring a welcome nod to one’s visit in the garden.  Things are good, and a chop here and there makes them even better.  Stopping to smell the roses is only slightly sweeter.  Hour upon hour of vigorous hoeing to recover the upper hand, however, is not so much fun.  Drudgery is a pretty ugly word, and seems apt for this purpose.  So how to convince oneself the effort is justified… that the juice is worth the squeeze?  I suppose one could consider such effort a punishment for allowing the situation to come to this.  Not for me though, I prefer anticipating a brighter future.  If I can imagine the weedy presence is not beyond slaying (and on a few occasions over a longish lifetime the calculation did fall short so laying a whole bed to waste was perceived the best course)… then I will muster up a view of the salvaged bed in all its glory as the just reward of such toil.  It also helps to take the occasional backward glance to see one’s progress and mentally pat the back for the effort.  And it further helps to hear the relieved sighs of the garden plants whose near term fate you’ve pardoned.  If you can’t sense plants sighing, maybe you haven’t spent enough time rescuing them.

Salvaged garden plants in all their glory?  For me it’s all about the food.  Flower gardens are far more toil.  If I’m not going to eat it, I have a harder time getting fired up to save it.  Crowder peas – Brian’s damsels in distress – make for really good eating.  I’ve noticed in the past that if I’m preparing a meal from a garden plant that needed some extreme effort to produce (say vicious weeding) then I tend to be more cautious and deliberate to make the meal as tantalizing as I can.  The delayed gratification has made a mark to live up to.  The smell of crowder pea soup simmering on the stove in the fall as the temps get nippy – heals a lot of gardening effort.  Perhaps this is a bit like Thoreau’s observation that cutting fire wood warms you twice – once when you split it and again when you burn it.

If you still have a hard time getting yourself motivated to hoe the weeds in the garden then I might suggest skipping a few meals.  Not a self-flagellating experience mind you… just enough hunger to make the appreciation of a good meal even more than a culinary delight.  Let’s call it a reminding oneself of the basic value of food.  Fasting’s effects on the evolution of altruism.  There’s a title I could warm up to.



  1. […] recently offered a small thought about delayed gratification and a speculation about whether such a behavior might give rise to […]


  2. Clem, just catching up with your blog…I’ve even been struggling to keep up with mine…too much weeding to do. Anyway, rest assured that I will be addressing the evolution of human altruism in relation to downstream gratification on at some point this year: working title, ‘The history of the world in ten and a half paragraphs’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, weeding… certainly a delayed gratification activity. Too much rain preventing timely weeding is fairly stressful as well. If it were easy, anyone could do it.

      Have started a small file on evolution of altruism and will be anxious to see what you have to say on the subject. There is plenty of debate in evolutionary circles about group selection. Kin selection even gets banged around some. When groups with various kin affiliations imbedded within them are examined it creates plenty of statistical concern teasing meaning from observations. But I’m confident your forthcoming 10.5 paragraphs will clear it all up 🙂

      On a different note, I couldn’t get through to SFF the other day and thought perhaps you’d gotten so lost in the weeds you had to put it down. The NYSE was down about the same time though, so now I’m convinced you run with the BIG DOGS. Just having SFF on the Blogroll here makes my head swell.


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