Altruism and Selfishness

Altruism and selfishness are both rooted in our animal nature. They are not gifts from God or curses from Satan. Every individual human possesses elements of both because both altruism and selfishness worked for our ancient ancestors, at different times and each within their own set of circumstances.

Everything we are now is the result of what worked for our ancestors. This is what natural selection does over the course of evolution: it selects for what works and selects against what doesn’t work; it can also leave intact characteristics neither beneficial nor detrimental. This process does not – it should go without saying, but time has shown it cannot – work perfectly. Perfect beings do not and will never exist. Humanity is not destined to reach some state of perfection. Humanity, in fact, has no destiny at all bequeathed by some outside agent. We are the result of what the environment did to our ancestors, reinforcing various beneficial characteristics, and eliminating various detrimental characteristics, and doing it imperfectly. Our descendants cannot be other than the result of the same forces that made us as we are today.

Admittedly, we may develop tools to alter our own genetic codes directly, and seize control of our own genomes and evolution. If that occurs, it will bring its own set of problems. Still, such direct control will in fact be nothing more than yet another sort of environmental influence, taking its place among the age-old assortment of environmental influences.

For most living creatures, what can constitute an environmental influence is obvious: sun, water, climate, soil, altitude, food, predators, prey, body structure, mates, reproduction, other members of the same species. Many species simply broadcast their sperm or ova and currents of wind and water carry them to receptive mates. Other species must actively seek a mate among the other members of their own species. Mammals fall into this category.

Getting one’s genes into the next generation is the definition of evolutionary success. No offspring, and it’s the end of the line for your personal collection of genes. Successfully having offspring who then successfully have offspring is the goal. And that’s it for evolution: that’s all it “cares” about; that constitutes success.

Darwin summarized it as follows:

  1. Individuals vary: abilities and qualities inevitably fall along spectrums of quality and usefulness
  2. These individual variations are to some degree hereditary
  3. Organisms multiply at a rate exceeding the environmental carrying capacity; some must die

These truisms led Darwin to the following:

  1. Each generation is subject to a process of selective impact by the environment (which includes all other creatures).
  2. Natural selection and adaptation are two sides of the same coin; successful adaptation to present circumstances exists when it successfully leaves offspring for the next generation.
  3. This is a population process: individuals do not evolve; the average constitution of the entire population of individuals evolves as the generations succeed one another.

Selfishness is inevitable in natural selection. Each individual is driven to get it’s genes into the next generation, often at the expense of another individual striving to do the same thing. Within most species, to fail in this task is to fail evolutionarily, and the loser’s genes disappear from the evolutionary pool. But each individual must deal with others of its own species to accomplish this goal or reproduction, so accommodations must often be made. Such accommodations may be as fundamental as not killing and eating your mate before mating, even when you’re starving – the female Black-widow Spider knows this. Courtship displays may develop, demonstrating fitness as either mate or parent to one’s prospective mate. The more time species members spend interacting, the more complex and energy-consuming such accommodations may become. Mating systems can become quite complex and varied as among the primates and especially among humans. Over the ages humans developed numerous mating systems, sometimes in reaction to their environments, sometimes for no reason discernible to an outside observer.

Selfishness was burned into our genes by the demands of over a billion years of natural selection: get your genes into the next generation, or you’re out of the game.

All living creatures succeed and survive, or fail and die, within a particular environment. For humans, the most social of all animals larger than the social insects, the most important element of that environment is…other humans. We are the most important environmental influence with which other humans must deal. We are the environmental factor to which other humans must adapt or die. We, collectively, determine evolutionary success or failure for the humans around us. Over the past five million years our ancestors evolved qualities of body, mind and emotion which enabled them to live together, survive together, bear children together, discover and create together, sing, dance and hunt together, defend one another, and stare into the fire and share their thoughts and feelings, together. We now regularly work among dozens or thousands, travel among thousands or tens of thousands. No other primate can gather in groups of more than a hundred members; many cannot tolerate one-half or one-quarter as many without fighting and killing. Our ability to not just gather but interact peacefully in groups of millions may be our most unusual quality.

Sociability – getting along with one another – is a trait most highly developed by humans. Altruism is one aspect of sociability. Doing something for the benefit of others, often to the detriment of ourselves, is probably inevitable among highly social creatures. Why do we do this? Because it makes us feel good. Doing something for someone else brings pleasurable feelings. Why does that happen? Because gaining pleasure from other humans, making them feel pleasure and lessening their pain, evolved as a mechanism to enhance social cohesion in one’s group. It’s a binding agent; it holds the group together. Our ancestors evolved feelings just as they evolved opposable thumbs, sweat glands and large brains, and for the same reasons – they enhanced the likelihood of our individual survival.

We are sociable and altruistic because these feelings and actions help to bind our group together, and it is our group which protects us and enables our survival. But the groups within which our ancestors developed such dependence, allegiance and – eventually – love, were small, only 10 to 200 individuals. It is for the band – one’s immediate support-system – that allegiance and altruism were evolved, and to which it was directed. Outsiders might apply, but they might not gain admittance. Except for the genetic necessity of preventing inbreeding by finding mates outside one’s band, humans might have evolved total hostility towards all other bands. Sociability and altruism were necessary factors within one’s band, but far less so when dealing with “others.”

The names of tribes often translate as “human beings;” members of other tribes were considered as the “other,” and typically considered inferior. We form “cliques,” clubs, associations, communities, villages, cities, states, nations, political groups, social groups, chat rooms, religions, philosophies, athletic teams, and countless other “groups,” and we all value our own group(s) above any alternative or competing group. We often express altruism only within our own group, and are altruistic far less often – or never – to those not in our group.

Humans are not fundamentally racists, sectarianists, nationalists, sexists, elitists, and so on; we are “groupists.” We need groups and we create groups by the millions to fill this evolutionary need. Many of us belong to many “groups.” If we give to large charities, like UNICEF or World Wildlife Fund, it’s because we personally include children or disadvantaged children within one of our “groups,” or we feel all animals are in our “group.” Altruism is fundamentally a form of selfishness. It evolved because by enhancing cohesiveness within one’s own band, it enhanced our individual likelihood of survival. It’s a bit like a coral creature building a reef of calcium carbonate, which benefits many other creatures. It wasn’t built for that purpose, but it changed the environment; natural selection then reinforced reef-building behavior because the presence of other creatures attracted to the reef provided additional benefits to the coral creature. That’s a simplistic description, of course.

At the start we said: “Altruism and selfishness are both rooted in our animal nature.” These two sets of behaviors are created by our genes, and their expression is heavily influenced by our environments, most importantly by other humans. But is not the same genes that created the potential for these behaviors. We have two sets or “constellations” of genes, one for altruism, one for selfishness. Each constellation of genes is necessary for humans to survive. But they do not work terribly well with one another. Each constellation evolved for their own purposes; each has the same goal – survival and reproductive success for the individual organism – but their modes of operation are different, often contradictory and in competition. This “war” between our genes creates the conflict we all feel in our hearts; act selfishly or altruistically. It is an unending conflict. Resolution may not be possible, but only a sort of “dynamic balance,” as with riding a unicycle versus coasting downhill on a bicycle. Constant adjustments will be necessary in order to maintain any semblance of balance.

Selfishness appeared at the moment living forms appeared. Altruism appeared far more recently; for the primates is was almost certainly not more than ten million years ago, or about ½-1% of the time since selfishness appeared. It’s no wonder than selfishness is far more common than altruism. Most species exist quite well without altruism; few – if any – species other than humans require it, while selfishness comes easily to all creatures, including humans. The law libraries and dispute-settlement systems of the world are mute testament to the difficultly humans have in getting along with one another. We don’t fill our religions with admonitions to lie, cheat, steal and murder our fellow humans; we do those things quite naturally and easily and we don’t need any encouragement along that line. Rather we fill our religions with homilies and adages about love, faith, charity, peace, brotherhood and sisterhood, because getting along with one another is so damnably difficult and so damnably necessary for our individual and mutual survival. The Golden Rule is “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” It is not, “Kill them before they kill you.” For most of us, anyway. Not all.

Human characteristics typically fall along a spectrum: height, girth, skin color, health, strength, intelligence, speed, hearing, eyesight, smell, taste, anger, tenderness, amiability, autism, infection resistance, extroversion, selfishness, altruism. As Darwin said, individuals vary. Some people barely recognize anyone other than themselves as actually human; it’s as if their “band” had contracted to include only themselves. We often call such people sociopaths or psychopaths, and the “Antisocial Personality Disorder” itself falls along a spectrum from gradations of “normal,” through gradations of sociopathy and into gradations of psychopathy. Other people act as if their “band” has expanded to include everyone they met or even never met, possibly even to include annoying insects like houseflies. We tend to see such people as holy people or “saints.” Most people – not all – respect, admire, and perhaps strive to emulate such people. “WWJD” – “What Would Jesus Do?” – is one form of such respect and emulation. It can push us towards the proverbial “better angels of our nature” and away from the metaphorical “inner demons” we all possess. The expression of sociability and altruism beyond the limits of our own tiny “band” is damnably difficult, as witnessed by those extensive law libraries. It is of relatively recent appearance, and our ancestors needed it only within their small “bands.” So that is what has come down to us. To be sociable and altruistic towards those outside our own small “bands,” we must struggle against a billion years of natural selection.

For the extremely social species we call the human race, it’s an absolutely necessary, minute-to-minute fight.