“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.