Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Unselfish Mind (Part 11)

If we are to see into the heart of the human condition we must have some explanation for our altruistic behavior.

Darwin was aware of this mystery and he proposed two solutions. One was a kind of tribal selection, the other had to do with the humans’ enhanced cognitive abilities.

The tribal explanation was straightforward. Our ancestors lived in tribal groups that were in competition with each other. Groups that had higher levels of internal cooperation tended to out compete tribes with less collaborative members. In other words Darwin was proposing a model of group selection.

More recent evolutionary theorists have been uncomfortable with Darwin’s invocation of group selection. Thus, Dawkins proposed a somewhat different version that does not entail group selection. In his model, our ancestors evolved in tightly knit small units, where there was a high probability that people you came in contact with were related, or could reciprocate our favors, thus we developed a genetic instruction that commanded us to help everyone, a kind of indiscriminate altruism. As we moved into larger societies entailing more interactions with non-kin, we simply kept our wholesale altruism. Social scientist Howard Margolis (1982) described this as “genetic inertia” or “fossil kin altruism” (p. 34).

We might compare this to our desire for high calorie foods, which was very adaptive for our ancestors living in food scarce environments. However, unfortunately for our waistlines, this adaption continues even after high calorie food had become cheap and plentiful. Unlike our food preferences, our indiscriminate altruism had many beneficial consequences.

There is a major problem with Dawkins’ hypothesis. It does not explain how human altruism has coexisted with our strong tendency for in-group favoritism. Dawkins’ model would predict an unbounded altruism, yet historically humans have set limits on their benevolence. Our ancestors may have been indiscriminate altruists, but only to members of their own tribe. 

While Darwin’s tribal selection model remains controversial it offers a better explanation for the facts of human altruism than Dawkins’ hypothesis. Tribal selection can explain certain human traits, such as the extreme ease at which people organize themselves into rival groups that are mistrustful of outsiders.


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