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Saturday, January 7, 2017

Forget cut-throat competition: to survive, try a little selflessness


Scientists at Princeton say that it’s altruism, not selfishness, that will ultimately enable human beings to flourish. And Charles Darwin always knew it

‘Darwin thought that sympathetic and cooperative tribes and groups would flourish in comparison with communities made up of more selfish individuals, and that natural selection would thus favour cooperation.’ 

A new study has claimed that, contrary to received wisdom, it is in fact Altruism not cut-throat competition, that confers real evolutionary advantage.
Research that attempts to link human morality with biological evolution (of yeast, in this case) has always had broad appeal. For decades we have lived with the idea that Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection can explain everything in terms of competition – and that therefore evolution favours selfishness. What place is there for a bleeding-heart altruist in a world where only the fittest survive?

The popularity of this idea can be traced back to the massive success of Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene (1976).  “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism,” Dawkins wrote, “because we are born selfish.” Against this backdrop, studies showing how cooperation evolved in nature seem surprising. In a world where we are taught that nature is selfish and selfishness natural, the discovery of natural altruism can even seem shocking.

In fact, Darwin would not have been at all surprised. The conclusion that cooperative groups will flourish at the expense of more selfish ones, and that as a result moral instincts will gradually evolve, was at the heart of his evolutionary writings. In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin wrote about loving and cooperative behaviours in dogs, elephants, baboons, pelicans, and other species. He thought that sympathetic and cooperative tribes and groups would flourish in comparison with communities made up of more selfish individuals, and that natural selection would thus favour cooperation.

Another tendency that Darwin shares with more recent scientists is his willingness to leap from the world of natural selection to the language of morality. Writing of the evolution of human cooperation, Darwin predicted that “looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe, and virtue will be triumphant.”

But there is a danger in making the leap from the single-celled to the saintly, and again it is one that has been evident since the 19th century. Darwin’s fellow evolutionist Herbert Spencer defined altruism in physical terms – generally as any action that benefited another organism at some cost to the self – but even including mere physical division and loss of matter in very simple organisms. Friedrich Nietzsche retorted that in that case, even urination should be counted as an altruistic virtue.

The final reason we care about studies like these is that they seem to have the potential to shed light on politics and society. The Dawkinsian picture of selfish humans driven by an evolved individualism chimed with the social and political ethos of the Margaret Thatcher era. Loadsamoney had selfish genes. But there have always been those on hand to make the opposite political case, too – such as the Russian anarchist and socialist Peter Kropotkin, author of Mutual Aid (1902), who argued that the multiple examples of cooperation among animals proved that mother nature was a communist not a capitalist.


Both these political arguments are guilty of the same fallacy. Selfishness and cooperation, like love and hate, war and peace, rape and murder, are all “natural” and “evolved” in one sense. But human beings, unlike yeast cells, have morals and minds, with which we make choices and form emotional attachments. We also form ourselves into social groups which determine our values. It is through these moral and social means that we decide whether, and in what respects, to follow or to resist nature.

Thomas Dixon