The Evolutionary Roots of Altruism

Melvin Konner in The American Prospect:

9780300189490David Sloan Wilson opens his new book, Does Altruism Exist?, with an old conundrum that has animated many late-night dormitory debates: If helping someone gives you pleasure, gains you points for an afterlife, and enhances your reputation, is it really altruism? Wilson wisely decides to put acts before motives: “When Ted benefits Martha at a cost to himself, that’s altruistic, regardless of how he thinks or feels about it.” Great. But what does “cost” mean in that sentence? Does it mean “cost” after considering all those benefits, or not?

Wilson believes that to answer this question, we must turn to evolutionary theory, and especially to a theory known as group selection, which holds that better adapted groups produce more offspring, with the result that their traits are passed on. The implications are far-reaching. If group selection is correct, it follows that humans and other group-living creatures are fundamentally not selfish but cooperative and even altruistic—that we human beings owe our existence to distant ancestors who were members of groups that succeeded because they were better able to cooperate than other groups.

Group selection departs from the more familiar model of individual selection that sees the evolutionary prize going to the individual, male or female, who has more surviving offspring, regardless of health and life-span, much less altruism. Yet another variant of Darwinian theory reduces evolution to what the biologist Richard Dawkins famously called “the selfish gene.” In this view, the true competition to reproduce is at the level of the gene, and an organism is only a gene’s way of making a copy of itself.

Selfish-gene theory allowed, however, for an explanation of altruism that arose in the 1960s and became known as “kin selection.”

More here.