Thursday, June 23, 2022

The Unselfish Mind (Part 8)

 II. The Evolution of Cooperation

Why are we so altruistic? Cynics bemoan our selfishness, yet what is most striking about our species is our high levels of self-sacrifice. There is an urban legend, far from the truth, that we are the only animal that kills members of its own species. But murder of co-specifics is common in the animal world. What is remarkable about humans is not that we murder (and we have certainly done that on a massive scale), but that we will sacrifice ourselves even for unrelated strangers we will never meet. Indeed, as far as we know, humans are the only animals that will give their lives for an idea.   

Cooperation and altruism have always posed a special problem for evolutionary theory. Winning the game of natural selection means passing your genes onto the next generation. But how could cooperation arise out of agents who act exclusively in their own interest? This is what biologist David Sloan Wilson (2002) calls “the fundamental problem of social life” (p. 8).

Put another way - how do we reconcile altruism with selfish gene theory? The metaphor of the selfish gene originates with the zoologist Richard Dawkins. In his book, The Selfish Gene, he described humans (indeed, all animals) as lumbering robots built by genes. And he had a point, from the gene’s perspective we are simply vehicles to get copies of itself into the next generation. As Samuel Butler observed: “a hen is only an egg's way of making another egg.” There is no denying the elegance and power of Dawkins’ metaphor, but, in the final analysis, it must explain how selfish genes built unselfish people. 

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