How Altruism and Cooperation Help Us Survive

Evolution by natural selection is blamed for promoting ruthless competition as a way to succeed in life — hence concepts such as “survival of the fittest” and “Social Darwinism”, which are seen as rooted in evolutionary theory but, are in fact perversions and misunderstandings of it. Take it from the man who formulated the theory of evolution:

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 [Charles Darwin’s] 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.”

The idea that evolution makes selfishness and immorality pivotal to survival is not only factually wrong, but a key reason why so many people — particularly the religious — are so reluctant to accept it as true. But mounting scientific evidence has verified Darwin’s early observations that prosocial behaviors are vital to our species’ flourishing:

Evolutionary biologists have sometimes struggled with the idea that genuine altruism can exist, given the belief that all life is shaped by a constant Darwinian battle that allows only the “survival of the fittest”.

Amid such a bitter contest, why would one organism help another without getting something in return?

But the mathematicians, led by Dr George Constable, of Princeton University in the U.S., now believe they have come up with a proof that explains why putting yourself out for someone else can be better in the long-run.

The process is so basic that it can be seen in the yeast fungus. It is capable of producing an enzyme that breaks down complex sugars in the environment, creating more food for all.

But this means expending energy that could otherwise be used for reproduction, so a mutant strain of ‘cheaters’ that selfishly avoid contributing to food production would appear to have a distinct advantage.

However too many cheaters and the food will start to run out, causing the population to crash. A higher proportion of ‘altruistic’ yeast means there will be more food and a higher population.

Humans are an inherently social species; we are dependent on others for acquiring food, imparting useful knowledge, and protecting us. The few of us who try to go it alone rarely survive long, or in any case do not enjoy optimal results. We need to cooperate with other people, on some level, to get what we want.

Obviously, humans still fight and compete with one another, especially as one group organized against another. Numerous other variables contribute to our tendency to be in conflict with one another individually and as whole societies. But there has always been, and conceivably always will be, a baseline amount of collaboration, generosity, and loyalty in any group or society that wants to survive; social units that are hobbled by corruption, cut-throat competition, and communal violence will find their conditions and long-term prospects suboptimal to a more united, organized, and mutualistic alternative. That is why virtually all of the world’s religions enshrine such ideals as virtues, and why no society exists without some sort of social contract that favors honesty, cooperation, and other prosocial behaviors (albeit in theory if not always in practice).

Granted, there is a risk to essentializing moral virtues like altruism and generosity. One can make the case that viewing compassion and kindness as ingrained by evolution cheapens their value; people are not sincerely nice and selfless, they are just motivated by biological impulse. But I think this view overstates the case: yes, a certain degree of altruism appears to be evolutionarily inherent to our species, but that does not lessen the value of charity or generosity any more than maternal instincts devalue motherhood; the end result is still good and should thus be encouraged and promoted.

Moreover, humans are increasingly extending the circle of altruism and compassion beyond our kin and to ever wider and more diverse communities — bands, tribes, cities, countries, and even the entire world. Our appreciation for the thoughts and feelings of strangers — our rationalizing that other humans, no matter how different, have a similar interest not to be enslaved, oppressed, or otherwise mistreated — is a product of a centuries-long moral arc that is bending towards greater justice, fairness, and kindness.

If humanity is to survive the existential crises it faces in the 21st century and beyond, it will need to tap into this wellspring of moral goodness that has been pivotal to our continued growth and progress.

What are your thoughts?

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