Why Altruism is Selfish

December 09, 2008 By: erik Category: Musings, Science 3,949 views

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Homo sapiens sapiens is a pretty fascinating subspecies. Due to our intelligence and linguistic skills, we like to think of ourselves as thinking and reasoning about our behaviors, and we are insulted by scientists who describe our behaviors the same way they describe those of less intelligent animals. Personally, I’m fascinated by such simple, functional explanations of complex systems. That’s why I love the work of B. F. Skinner, Richard Dawkins, and Desmond Morris.

The following is an excerpt from Peoplewatching, by Desmond Morris.

Altruism is the performance of an unselfish act. As a pattern of behavior this act must have two properties: it must benefit someone else, and it must do so to the disadvantage of the benefactor. It is not merely a matter of being helpful, it is helpfulness at a cost to yourself.

This simple definition conceals a difficult biological problem. If I harm myself to help you, then I am increasing your chances of success relative to mine. In broad evolutionary terms, if I do this, your offspring (or potential offspring) will have better prospects than mine. Because I have been altruistic, your genetic line will stand a better chance of survival than mine. Over a period of time, my unselfish line will die out and your selfish line will survive. So altruism will not be a viable proposition in evolutionary terms.

Since human beings are animals whose ancestors have won the long struggle for survival during their evolutionary history, they cannot be genetically programmed to display true altruism. Evolution theory suggests that they must, like all other animals, be entirely selfish in their actions, even when they appear to be at their most self-sacrificing and philanthropic.

This is the biological, evolutionary argument and it is completely convincing as far as it goes, but it does not seem to explain many of mankind’s “finer moments”. If a man sees a burning house and inside it his small daughter, an old friend, a complete stranger, or even a screaming kitten, he may, without pausing to think, rush headlong into the building and be badly burned in a desperate attempt to save a life. How can actions of this sort be described as selfish? The fact is that they can, but it requires special definition of the term “self”.

When you think of your “self”, you probably think of your living body, complete, as it is at this moment. But biologically it is more correct to think of yourself as merely a temporary housing, a disposable container, for your genes. Your genes – the genetic material that you inherited from your parents and which you will pass on to your children – are in a sense immortal. Our bodies are merely the carriers which they use to transport themselves from one generation to the next. It is they, not we, who are the basic units of evolution. We are only their guardians, protecting them from destruction as best we can, for the brief span of our lives.

Religion pictures man as having an immortal soul which leaves his body at death and floats off to heaven (or hell, as the case may be), but the more useful image is to visualize a man’s immortal soul as sperm-shaped and a woman’s as egg-shaped and to think of them as leaving the body during the breeding process rather than at death. Following this line of thought, though, there is, of course, an afterlife, but it is not in some mysterious “other world”, it is right here in the heaven (or hell) of the nursery and the playground, where our genes continue their immortal journey down the tunnel of time, rehoused now in the brand-new flesh-containers we call children.

So, genetically speaking, our children are us – or, rather, half of us, since our mate has a half share of the genes of each child. This makes our devoted and apparently selfless parental care nothing more than genetic self-care. The man who risks death to save his small daughter from a fire is in reality saving his own genes in their new body-package. And, in saving his genes, his act becomes biologically selfish, rather than altruistic.

But supposing the man leaping into the fire is trying to save, not his daughter, but an old friend? How can this be selfish? The answer here lies in the ancient history of mankind. For more than a million years, man was a simple tribal being, living in small groups where everyone knew everyone else and everyone was closely genetically related to everyone else. Despite a certain amount of out-breeding, the chances were that every member of your own tribe was a relative of some kind, even if a rather remote one. A certain degree of altruism was therefore appropriate where all the other members of your tribe were concerned. You would be helping copies of your own genes, and although you might not respond so intensely to their calls for help as you would do with your own children, you would nevertheless give them a degree of help, again on a basis of genetic selfishness.

This is not, of course, a calculated process. It operates unconsciously and is based on an emotion we call “love”. Our love for our children is what we say we are obeying when we act “selflessly” for them, and our love of our fellow-men is what we feel when we come to the aid of our friends. These are inborn tendencies and when we are faced with calls for help we feel ourselves obeying these deep-seated urges unquestioningly and unanalytically. It is only because we see ourselves as “persons” rather than “gene machines” that we think of these acts of love as unselfish rather than selfish.

So far, so good, but what about the man who rushes headlong into the fire to save a complete stranger? The stranger is probably not genetically related to the man who helps him, so this act must surely be truly unselfish and altruistic? The answer is Yes, but only by accident. The accident is caused by the rapid growth of human populations in the last few thousand years. Previously, for millions of years, man was tribal and any inborn urge to help his fellow-men would have meant automatically that he was helping his gene-sharing relatives, even if only remote ones. There was no need for this urge to be selective, because there were no strangers around to create problems. But with the urban explosion, man rapidly found himself in huge communities, surrounded by strangers and with no time for his genetic constitution to alter to fit the startlingly new circumstances. So his altruism inevitably spread to include all his fellow-citizens, even though many of them may have been genetically quite unrelated to him.

Politicians, exploiting this ancient urge, were easily able to spread the aid-system even further, to a national level called patriotism, so that men would go and die for their country as if it were their ancient tribe or their family.

The man who leaps into the fire to save a small kitten is a special case. To many people, animals are child substitutes and receive the same care and love as real children. The kitten-saver is explicable as a man who is going to the aid of his symbolic child. This process of symbolizing, of seeing one thing as a metaphorical equivalent of another, is a powerful tendency of the human animal and it accounts for a great deal of the spread of helpfulness across the human environment.

Isn’t that absolutely fascinating? Sorry it was so long, but he mentioned the burning kitty and I had to continue until he explained that part. To be fair, the amazing “altruism is really our genes being selfish” was really the breakthrough of Richard Dawkins (in his book, The Selfish Gene), and arguably the greatest contribution to evolution theory since Darwin himself.

Personally, I look forward to selfishly guarding my immortal genes in their brand new flesh bag once they get out of the gene packaging facility.

  • Let me just say again how much I am enjoying how much you are enjoying this book.

  • I could hear Desmond’s calm and measured voice in my head as I read that excerpt. Thanks for that.

    I still remember vividly the enormous impression “The Selfish Gene” made on me when I first read it in a freshman philosophy course. In fact, it’s the only book from that course that I can really remember.

    Can’t wait to meet the new flesh bag, and greetings to the gene packaging facility.

  • Heh. When I read anything written by Desmond Morris and Carl Sagan, I hear their voices in my head.

  • Brilliant reason to post Erik. It explains one of those key points that the religiously ignorant seem to cling to: our finer moments. Great stuff.

  • Will Smith

    This (the part about ‘accidental’ altruism) also helps to explain why drivers will flash other drivers in the opposite direction to warn them of a police car hiding up ahead, despite the fact that they will probably never meet the person they are flashing…I suppose also a belief in a general karma/reap what you sow/reciprocity/what goes around comes around kind of attitude might also contribute to this behaviour.

  • Excellent! Great article, I already saved it to my