Is Altruism Sustainable?

Jon Quitslund

“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” (Prov. 6:6)

“Kin and Kind,” an article by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker for March 5, set me thinking about the contest in our culture between selfishness and generosity.  Mr. Lehrer explains recent contributions by mathematicians and biologists to our understanding of altruism, and his essay prompted me to seek out more information about the contested scientific discipline of sociobiology.

It is well known that according to Darwin, evolution favors selfish and assertive individuals.  In order to thrive and evolve, a species needs to maintain control over its territory and any competing organisms, and selfish individuals are more successful in the struggle to survive and propagate their kind.  Within a species, genetically determined traits that increase competitiveness and adaptation will prevail in successive generations and the carriers of inferior genes will die out.

We also know that in human societies and in many other species, selfish and aggressive behavior coexists in some kind of balance with nurturing and generous behavior.  How did altruism (selflessness and self-sacrifice for the sake of others) emerge in the struggle for existence and become encoded genetically?  In the history of the human race, how did altruism find a place in most of the world’s cultures?

The field of sociobiology, founded by Edward O. Wilson in the 1970’s, has sought answers to these questions and others pertaining to evolutionary processes.  Through Jonah Lehrer’s article, and through a more technical journal article, I was introduced to recent developments in sociobiology, and given a foundation for some thoughts about adaptations that will be advantageous, if and when we shift from unsustainable to truly sustainable ways of life on planet Earth.

[Note: the technical article, by David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson, is “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology,” in the Quarterly Review of Biology, 82 (2007): 327-48; it’s available online.]

My thoughts here pertain to our long-term prospects, but I also envision some application to the way we live now, in a time when aggressive competition and self-interest are pushing generosity and cooperation to the margins of our politics.

To most readers of this post, it will be obvious that egotism, aggressive exploitation of advantages, and winner-take-all competition may be successful strategies for individuals and their descendants, but they create huge problems for society.  If practiced on a massive scale, as we see here in the U. S. and in other nations that have followed our example, such behavior is not sustainable.  We see proof of this bitter truth all around us.

Will we have to wait for more obvious collapses in our economy and the natural resources it depends upon before we stand up and face the music?  Or are there steps to be taken now that will enable us to adapt, survive, and even prosper?  If exploitation and selfishness are not sustainable, what human traits can bring such behavior under control and direct it toward living within reasonable limits?

[Note: Of the many recent books that examine the unsustainable trends in our world and its culture, two of the best are Mark Hertsgaard, Hot: Living through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, and Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth; Adapting to Our New Economic Reality.  I plan to review both books in the near future.]

By studying ants and other social insects, E. O. Wilson and his fellow sociobiologists have sought to understand how both selfish and selfless traits have evolved and been preserved, over thousands of years, in many species.  Both E. O. Wilson and D. S. Wilson (no relation) have extended their scientific inquiry to include human nature and the evolution of culture.  (Culture, of course, is not genetically transmitted, but it has much to do with which groups and nations prosper while others lose ground.)

In their application of lessons from sociobiology to the study of human nature and society, Wilson and Wilson are elaborating on a statement by Charles Darwin: “It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over other men of the same tribe, . . . an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another” (Descent of Man, quoted in “Rethinking,” 327-28).

The authors of “Rethinking” show how evolution works on more than one level.  At the level of individuals in a species, altruism is not rewarded, but they argue that selection by survival of the fittest also operates at the level of groups, where altruism, along with other forms of unselfish behavior, is apt to give the group advantages over a disorganized band of individuals out for themselves.

It seems to me that neither Darwin nor his followers in our day have paid enough heed to the advantages sometimes enjoyed by an organized band of individuals out for themselves.  It’s on this account that wars are fought and all those classic Western movies got made.  The influence of ‘the better angels of our nature’ is all too easily deflected, which is why we need the rule of law and governmental institutions.

I am more interested, however, in the vitality and positive influence of volunteerism, acting for the good of the public, often quite apart from the machinery of government.  Can we evolve to become less individualistic, more creative in our cooperation with others, toward goals that may require some selfless sacrifice and the loss of familiar comforts and conveniences?

A trend toward altruistic activism is apparent in our culture, locally and nationally.  It’s far from being the dominant trend, yet it has encountered all sorts of fierce resistance, often framed as a patriotic defense of freedom and individual rights.  Take just one instance: the furor that has developed around the ‘individual mandate’ in the Affordable Care Act.  A large percentage of individuals with adequate health care coverage believe, mistakenly, that ‘Obamacare’ will force them out of their current arrangements and into a government-sponsored plan.

In Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd show how a ‘cultural mutation’ can modify a group’s behavior in such a way that natural selection fundamentally transforms the group.  In their paper, Wilson and Wilson cite Richerson and Boyd to support their claim that “If a new behavior arises by a cultural mutation, it can quickly become the most common behavior within the group and provide the decisive edge in between-group competition” (“Rethinking,” 343).

In both nature (in the global systems that shape our climate and weather, for example) and in culture (in our creation and consumption of energy for heat, light, and transportation, for example), there seem to be ‘tipping points.’  Somehow, we need to align changes in our culture with the constraints being imposed by accumulating changes in our natural environment.


This entry was posted in Activism, Altruism, Climate Change, Community, Cooperation, Cultural Change, Environment, Evolution, Sociobiology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is Altruism Sustainable?

  1. Leon Haller says:

    There are important issues here. Rabid individualism, which can obviously be beneficial for individuals (the extreme example is the amoral criminal), can, if practiced widely enough without countervailing pro-social pressures, result in collective disaster (the obvious example being the ‘de-civilization’ of a black ghetto like LA’s Compton or Watts).

    The problem is that the unleashing of individual initiative is also in no small part what built the USA into the greatest nation in the world. Men wish to improve their (individual) circumstances, and that (‘selfish’? no, ‘self-interested’) drive, combined with the dispersal of knowledge across society, which no central planner can hope to replicate, and which is the basis of capitalism’s success (along with, of course, individual liberty to pursue ambition, and secure property rights), is what has led to wealth in the modern world, which in turn is the basis of ultimate environmental sustainability (it is no accident that the socialist economies were environmental disasters, and that it’s the per capita wealthiest nations which are also the cleanest).

    What is optimal for a sustainable wealth maximization is simply to harness capitalist efficiency, but then to recognize the need for environmental protections (provided the science is indisputable, as it clearly is not wrt the global warming fraud). The wealthier a society is made through capitalism, the more it can afford ‘luxuries’ like super-clean air and water legislation.

    Of course, there are many other measures that can be taken re sustainability. The most important is population sustainability. The fewer people on the Earth, the more our material standard of living can be sustainably raised. Thus, the Western nations should never provide any type of food or medical care to Third World countries, though we should provide abundant prophylactics (we should also work for the empowerment of women across the planet, as the rise in female socioeconomic status is what most closely correlates with reductions in natality).

    We should also curtail all immigration, which acts as a kind of psychological safety-valve for Third World countries (their thinking is along the lines of “more children are not a resource problem, as they can be ‘exported’ to the West”), thus delaying their own confrontation with the need to reduce domestic fertility rates.

    These problems are not in the least insoluble, nor do they require drastic changes in the American way of life (other than cutting off immigration, which we should have done decades ago, and for reasons quite apart from environmental concerns).

    • Sustainable Bainbridge says:

      Mr. Haller’s response offers views very different from mine on a number of issues. I see some common ground, and I want to carry the conversation further.
      I agree whole-heartedly that individual initiative is responsible for the greatness of our nation – past, present, and future. Mr. Haller’s distinction between selfish and self-interested behavior is useful, and it is natural for individuals and groups to pursue what they consider to be in their own self-interest. Capitalism supports that pursuit, and our government at all levels, from its beginnings down to the present day, has pretty consistently supported capitalistic enterprises; utopian communities at odds with the prevailing capitalist ethos have sometimes been tolerated by governmental authorities, and have sometimes been suppressed.
      I have no quarrel with the fundamental principles of capitalism, but when, in practice, they are boiled down to the slogan “Greed is good!” I think it’s time to blow a whistle. Also, when the relationship of certain businesses to government is too cozy (“crony capitalism”) the public interest is bound to suffer; likewise, when the relationship is too adversarial (tax evasion, and rejection of all but token regulation).
      Mr. Haller focuses on the individual’s ambition to improve their circumstances by accumulating wealth and property. That is a common and worthy motive, but the pursuit of happiness may take many other forms.
      From the beginnings of settlement in the New World by European soldiers, missionaries, and colonists, millions of immigrants have come to our shores to seek their fortunes. Some became wealthy, others died in the attempt; still others came with more modest or less materialistic ambitions. The typical story of immigrants is of people who struggled and sacrificed so that their children and grandchildren would have opportunities that were beyond their own reach.
      Self-interest is normal and necessary, but humans are social animals. They cluster together for security and comfort, and once the basic necessities of life are secured, individuals may yearn for various kinds of self-transcendence, which often means devotion to the interests of others, not oneself alone.
      Writing about altruism, I didn’t mean to question the value of self-interest. I don’t see any conflict between altruism and self-interest; they go together like yin and yang.
      I cannot end this without commenting on Mr. Haller’s reference to “the global warming fraud.” What is the rationale for this attitude? It is altogether too common, and it flies in the face of common sense.
      Science is never indisputable, especially when scientists try to predict what will happen in 10, 20, or 50 years; any scientist will tell you this. But the body of hard data on what has already happened is huge, and scientists have developed increasingly accurate models for interpreting the data and describing what is bound to happen, based on what we know ‘for sure’ about the many determinants of the global climate and its cascading effects on the world as we know it. I’ll write more about this when I review Mark Hertsgaard’s book.
      Jon Quitslund

  2. Maradel Gale says:

    Jon: You seem to bite off a lot in your blogs — and then manage to weave a credible essay incorporating a number of ideas and examples. I was happy to learn that the groups that practice some form(s) of altruism seem eventually to prevail over those that don’t — and I find myself looking for current examples. It seems there can be many smaller, yet significant groups within a larger society (like the many organized environmentalists within the US) who cannot seem to break through the barriers that surround a larger segment of the population that may consist of climate change deniers; those who realize that significant change will destroy their current status which allows them to thrive by preying on the larger population (the major oil companies would be an example of this group); and others who are so far out of the loop they haven’t begun to tune in. It would seem that we are a long way from reaching another tipping point — that being where those who see the handwriting on the wall can generate enough power to move the much larger uninvolved and/or “selfish” members of the culture to change for the benefit of the whole.

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