Another Look at Altruism

The insights of Darwin and those who have succeeded him in developing the theory of evolution have helped immensely our understanding of the world. For over a century and a half since the 1859 publication of his seminal work On the Origin of Species scientists have accumulated evidence in support of his thesis. By the early twentieth century there was broad scientific support that the process that he called natural selection was the shaping force that influenced (and continues to influence) the progressive development of living organisms over generations.

In some ways the theory of evolution helps us provide some answers to those existential questions:

Where do we come from?

What are we? And,

Where are we going?

I would be the first to admit, that whilst the theory of evolution is helpful, it does not hold all the answers. Despite the efforts of the latter day evolutionary psychologists, whose work I find particularly fascinating, evolution has been largely devoted to explaining our biological development and, at least to my mind, it has done that very successfully.

The ethos of natural selection has been crudely described as the “survival of the fittest”. In gross terms it is true that those organisms that competed successfully with their contemporaries were most likely to survive and successfully reproduce. In this way their dominant characteristics were passed on and formed the basis for new mutations that had then to compete again for survival.

But in the late twentieth century a problem was posed for evolution. If evolution was disposed to reward those individuals that were able to outperform their fellows and thus through selfish means derive an evolutionary benefit, how could altruism be explained? There are legions of examples of individuals disadvantaging and sometimes even sacrificing themselves for the benefit of others. Surely such activity bestows on them no apparent evolutionary advantage. Here was a problem of some moment for the evolutionists to come to grips with.

The first attempt to produce an explanation was the so-called “kin selection” model, popularly championed by Richard Dawkins. Here it was posited that we had an innate disposition to preserve our genes. According to this theory an individual would be prepared to put themselves at risk to benefit another in proportion to how closely related they were to us. We would strive to advance the welfare of our progeny even at expense of our own welfare because they housed half our genetic inheritance. We would be less likely to intervene in the favour of the welfare of our cousins, our grandchildren and so on because they carried less of our genes. This theory was advanced in popular literature by the notion of the “selfish genes”.

But caring for one another has benefits far beyond the circle of our close relatives. For example, when our progenitors learnt to master fire, it was probably helpful to have someone available to maintain the campfire overnight preventing its extinction. Whilst to begin with such groups would probably have been kinship groups, as the group grew, often by stealing womenfolk from other tribes or subjugating members of other groups they had bested in battle, the kinship at least of some members who would share such duties would have been greatly diluted.


A signal event in the evolution of hominids, initiated by the mastery of fire, was the establishment of campsites. This occurred as their diets changed from herbivore to omnivore with a greater reliance on meat, which was rendered more digestible by cooking. The archaeological evidence suggests that no longer did such bands wander constantly through a territory gathering fruit and other vegetable food. Now they selected defensible sites and fortified them. Now some stayed for extended periods to protect the young while others hunted. As suggested this process was aided by the ability to control fire and a division of labour both of which required cooperation and some degree of altruism.

Researchers have pointed out the primary and crucial difference between human cognition and that of our closest genetic relatives is the ability to collaborate to achieve shared goals. Individual survival became more dependent on the collective social functioning of the group. More and more we came to depend on those traits we now call emotional intelligence. Altruism was thus promoted.


Under such circumstances it stands to reason the group survival was aided by cooperation by group members.

With this in mind, rather than rely on the kinship theory, some biologists have begun to take a broader view.

It could then be argued that the genetic fitness of a human being must therefore be a consequence of both individual selection and group selection. The likelihood of survival and therefore the passing on of an individual’s genes was dependent on both the fitness of the group to which the individual belonged as well as to their individual fitness. The preferred position, with respect to evolution, would have been to be a fit member of a competent group. This theory has been called by biologists “eusocial evolution”.

It would therefore seem inevitable that the genetic code prescribing social behaviour of modern humans is a chimera. One part prescribes traits that favour success of individuals within the group and the other part prescribes the traits that favour group success in competition with other groups.

There is therefore inherent in all of us an unavoidable tension between these two tendencies. We are driven to exercise our individual evolutionary fitness which can often be manifested in such undesirable traits as greed, selfishness, cowardice and so on. But if our group is to succeed we must also show to some degree honour, virtue, duty and altruism.

As groups of humans coalesced into tribes, chieftainships, states, and finally nations, the importance of group fitness became a huge factor in the historical development of our ancestors. All our societies are dependent on members having a modicum at least of cooperative skills and altruism.

As we know, in any cooperative society there are opportunities for selfish individuals to avoid their group responsibilities. Let’s call these miscreants “cheaters”. Cheaters can take advantage of their particular society acquiring a larger share of resources, avoiding onerous duties and breaking rules. But historical evidence and computer modelling would suggest that colonies of cheaters lose to colonies of collaborators.

The biologist, Edward O Wilson writes, “…hereditary altruists form groups so cooperative and well-organised as to outcompete nonaltruist groups.”

And of course, evolution comes to our aid here. Except for dysfunctional individuals such as psychopaths, practising altruism makes us feel good! Studies have shown that the emotions that give us greatest satisfaction are altruism (displaying selflessness) and gratitude (being the beneficiaries of selflessness).

So evolution has resulted in a genetic inheritance where humans must cope with multilevel selection, where individual and group selection act together on the same individual but largely in opposition to each other. Individual selection is a result of competition for survival and reproduction between members of the same group. It shapes instincts in each member that are fundamentally selfish with reference to other members. In contrast group selection consists of competition between societies. Group selection shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic towards one another. Individual selection is responsible for our selfishness and greed. Group selection is responsible for our generosity, empathy and altruism.

It seems therefore evident that altruism is a necessary ingredient for a civil society to prevent the inevitable selfish demands of individuals from destroying the essential social fabric of coherent collectivities of homo sapiens. Humans it appears are successful not because of an elevated general intelligence but because they are born to be specialists in social skills. In the evolutionary contest between the group and the individual it would seem essential that for the greater good that the group should prevail and that altruism have greater weight in any society than selfishness.

Whilst evolution emphasised the benefits of group selection for our particular group (tribe or whatever) the more enlightened of us have seen the benefit of a broader altruism that encompasses all of humanity. Some particularly enlightened people have also been able to step out of the constraints of individual selection and put aside selfishness, greed and ego needs. But most of us will be torn between the evolutionary dictates of the individual versus the group. In the end the survival of our species is probably dependent on adoption of this broader altruism by significant numbers of our members.

The ability for humans to rise above these genetic demands and to create societies that honour and nurture all participants has been called “conscious evolution”. It is indeed a wonderful ideal but yet one that shows few signs of imminent practical realisation.

2 Replies to “Another Look at Altruism”

  1. An interesting argument well presented, Ted. To add to it a little I think it is worth considering some relatively recent human behaviour. If you go back 1,500 to 2,000 years it seems that every tribe was fighting every other tribe on a permanent basis and by all accounts the survival of the tribe very much out weighed individuals survival. Martyrdom and sainthood (dying for the collective) was a highly desirable goal. There were also beliefs that dying with a sword in your hand gave a much better after life of power and control as opposed to being dominated and victimised. There was still a huge selfish component to this though. The individual obtained wealth from the plunder of battles won but equally attractive was the women or girls that could be captured. The spoils of war for the victors created a much better chance for the passing on of genes. So groups raped and pillaged knowing that a death fighting was a glorious death with great rewards in the after-world. We seem to have evolved beyond this today in the West but could it be true that war has been a mechanism that allowed an accelerated evolutionary process to occur from a collective perspective?

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response Greg. I will have a little more to say on the subject next week in an essay that will respond to some of your queries.

Comments are closed.