The altruistic giving of one’s own life poses a problem, why would anyone make this sacrifice? What possible benefit would be derived? It is easy to explain many acts of generosity as some form of selfishness or signaling. The philanthropist is rewarded with testimonial dinners and museum wings bearing the family name. The courageous hero is compensated with our admiration. Even the extreme self-sacrifice of a martyred saint might be explained as quid pro quo for favor in the afterlife.
As cynical as these explanations sound, they probably do explain some of the motivation for seemingly unselfish acts, but do they explain all such behavior? What about the kidney donor who gives up that organ without fanfare? Or those who, risking grave danger, helped Jews escape the Nazis?
Biologists have longed puzzled over how natural selection could have produced human altruism. And many have come to accept the idea that altruism is really covert selfishness, reflecting the genetic selfishness of kin favoritism and the benefits of reciprocity.
Along a similar line, many economists posit that humans are self-regarding actors, bent on maximizing their individual utility.
Both models do capture some aspects of human behavior and we would be mistaken to dismiss them out of hand. But do they explain all human behaviors?
The economists and biologists should not be faulted for their reductionism. Indeed, since it is more parsimonious, a reductionist explanation is to be preferred, but only if it can account for all the known data. And this is the rub, human hyper-sociality cannot be explained without reference to humans as cultural and historical beings. This means that some aspects of human behavior can only be understood as caused by our membership in a human community.
Henry George, in a book published after his death, described people as members of “a larger entity, which has a life and character of its own, and continues its existence while its components change, just as the life and characteristics of our bodily frame continue, though the atoms of which it is composed are constantly passing away from it and as constantly being replaced.” George viewed human cooperation as an outgrowth of our participation in that larger entity.
But viewing altruism as an emergent property of culture is precisely what many biologists and economists object to. Biologist Robert Trivers explicitly rejected this approach, writing “sociology and anthropology seemed to claim that the larger unit was the key to understanding the smaller one. Societies, groups, species - all evolved mechanisms by which individuals are merely unconscious tools in their larger designs. In the extreme position, the larger groups were imagined to have cohesiveness and interconnectedness associated with individual organisms.”
It is my contention that George was right and Trivers mistaken. Human altruism cannot be understood without reference to history, culture, systems of production and exchange, and psychology. Of course, our capacity for culture is the product of the same evolutionary forces that forged our bodies and physiology, but once created, human culture acts like the super-organism described by George. It is cumulative and follows its own evolutionary dynamics and path. It creates the possibility of human history beyond natural history.
That is the central argument of this paper - our altruism, while built on a biological substrate of reciprocal cooperation and empathy, is a product of human cultural and psychological evolution. It is has a history. It has a future. When we recognize this reality we have grounds for rejecting the pessimism that some have deduced from the fact of our evolutionary origins.
For example, science writer Matt Ridley tells us that while our selfish genes might allow for some limited forms of altruism, we must accept “that universal benevolence is impossibly Utopian, that the fungus of selfishness will be ready to strike at the heartwood of any harmonious whole. It will lead us to suspect self-interest to be the cause of endless mutinies.”
But Henry George had a response to Matt Ridleys of his day: “Lying beneath all such theories is the selfishness that would resist any inquiry into the titles to the wealth which greed has gathered, and the difficulty and indisposition on the part of the comfortable classes of realizing the existence of any other world than that seen through their own eyes.”