- Fri, March 16 2012
- Filed under: Fun stuff
There is a fight afoot over the genetic origins of kindness, and it’s skillfully chronicled by Jonah Lehrer in the March 5 issue of The New Yorker.
Here are the basics as I understand them.
Charles Darwin saw altruism as a challenge to his theory of natural selection. If you were willing to give up your life for someone else, you wouldn’t reproduce and there would be no offspring to inherit your nobility, he posited. He explained altruism as a way for individuals to sustain the colony and therefore survive themselves.
Yet altruism is everywhere, in many species, as Lehrer notes - even when it doesn’t ensure individual survival. Vampire bats starve to death within 60 hours if they don’t have their fix of blood. When one has had a bad night of hunting, another will give it some of its own supper by locking mouths and passing on digesting blood (ew, I know). Honeybees will defend a hive with their sting, even though the act amounts to suicide. And of course we humans sometimes sacrifice ourselves for others too.
To explain this seeming paradox, a theory called “inclusive fitness” evolved over the past six decades. It explained altruism in genetic terms. If you make a sacrifice for kin, you’re just taking another route to perpetuating your own DNA. Altruism is attributed to the need to spread our own genes. This idea has the support of many scientists, since an entomologist named E.O. Wilson built off early work on the topic and wrote many books and papers on the subject.
But now, after 60 years of studying insects at Harvard, Wilson has had an apostasy. He says inclusive fitness isn’t all it cracked up to be. Many species aren’t cooperating, after all, even when there are close genetic connections among them. He teamed up with two other scientists to ask, if cooperation (also known as eusociality) is such a successful strategy, then why is it so rare?
They believe the answer is that kin working together is a consequence and not a cause of eusociality. In other words, says Lehrer, in an ant colony, “sisters don’t get along because they’re sisters. Rather clumps of females just happen to be the most likely to evolve the necessary preadaptations. They work together because they can’t leave; they have become slaves to the queen.”
Wilson now believes in something more akin to group selection. In recent studies of cooperative species, clumps of cooperators thrive and replicate, while selfish groups die off. Wilson is quoted by Lehrer as saying, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. But altrustic groups beat selfish groups.” Says Lehrer: “Goodness might actually be an adaptive trait, allowing more cooperative groups to outcompete their conniving cousins.”
Humans are neither wholly selfish nor completely cooperative. We’re somewhere in between.
As the scientific community ironically dukes it out over theories of cooperation, I’m left with a few inexpert thoughts. First, whatever the genetic purpose, we are altruistic. We can and do help each other. That’s the one thing that’s not in dispute. Second, most living things fare better when they work together. Third, as professionals dedicated to inspiring people’s better angels,we should embrace these facts as good news indeed, whatever the biological reasons.
If we’re wired to be nice at least some of the time, there’s hope for all of us.