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An Evolutionary Challenge: Explaining Away Compassion, Philanthropy, and Self-Sacrifice

Denyse O'Leary


Apart from religion, no subject has vexed naturalists more than why people sacrifice themselves and their wishes, hopes, dreams, and pleasures for others. Branding both philosophy and religion and popular arts and culture for naturalism includes explaining away compassion, philanthropy, and self-sacrifice.

Redefinition is a first step. This entire group of qualities is now loosely called "altruism," a trans-species concept by which, for example, worker ants pass on their genes by serving their queen, who lays lots of eggs, instead of reproducing individually (kin selection).

Science-Fictions-square.gifKin selection grew legs in 1955 when British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane said, we are told, that he would risk his life for two brothers or eight cousins, to preserve enough of his own genes to justify his death. Evolutionist William Hamilton described the idea mathematically, calling it inclusive fitness. His calculations have been used ever since, and were a key inspiration for Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene.

Altruism has been described as "an anomalous thorn in Darwin’s side" and a "conundrum that Darwinians would need to solve, given their view of the ruthless struggle among living beings for survival." So, if Darwinizing the mind through altruism and kin selection succeeds, we can account for such human behavior as if we were bees or beavers, which greatly simplifies matters.

E. O. Wilson is widely hailed as the founder of sociobiology (circa 1975), which expounded these theories. Sociobiology later morphed into evolutionary psychology. But then Wilson dramatically abandoned kin selection in 2010 in a Nature paper, "The evolution of eusociality," co-authored with mathematicians. He argued that strict Darwinism (natural selection acting on random mutation) "provides an exact framework for interpreting empirical observations," dispensing with the other theories he had promoted for decades. Over 140 leading biologists signed a letter to Natureattacking the 2010 paper. Some called his new, strictly Darwin model "unscholarly," "transparently wrong," and "misguided."

What? All this is said of a Darwin-only model, the gold standard of naturalism?

New Atheist evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has weighed in, saying that Wilson et al. are "wrong — dead wrong." Curiously, he admitted, "The ‘textbook’ explanation, based on a higher relatedness of workers to their sisters than to their own potential offspring, no longer seems feasible. … But we’ve known all this for years!" If so, he and fellow evolutionary biologists have been very economical with their accounts of the failures. How else to account for the — to many people, incomprehensible — uproar at the time?

Evolutionary psychologist David Sloan Wilson, defending E. O. Wilson, scolded, "This degree of illiteracy about foundational issues is an embarrassment for the field of evolutionary biology." He is perhaps telling us more than he realizes. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, attempting to defend Wilson, offered:

In the end, Mr. Wilson comes down on the side of what is called multi-level selection — the view that evolution involves a combination of gene selection, individual selection, kin selection, and group selection. Although he says his new theory opposes the idea of kin selection, in another sense he is simply maintaining that everybody is right. Genes are being selected to benefit the individual and their kin. Genes are also being selected that encourage the individual to participate in a group.

So if Wilson thinks everybody is right, why is Wilson so wrong? As John Gray put the matter in The New Republic, the debate is "an exercise in sectarian intellectual warfare of the kind that is so often fought in and around Darwinism." The uproar shows as well how flimsy the foundations of the Darwinian naturalist account of compassion, empathy, and self-sacrifice in humans have always been.

But that account meets a deeply felt need among naturalists. Generosity, we are told by one research group, leads to evolutionary success:

"When people act generously they feel it is almost instinctual, and indeed a large literature in evolutionary psychology shows that people derive happiness from being generous," [University of Pennsylvania biology Joshua] Plotkin said. "It’s not just in humans. Of course social insects behave this way, but even bacteria and viruses share gene products and behave in ways that can’t be described as anything but generous."

Elsewhere, we are told that altruism is just another form of manipulation, which greatly simplifies matters. Indeed, Northeastern University philosophy professor Rory Smead offers a Darwinian explanation of spite (why, counterintuitively, it is adaptive). Yet evolution is also moral, for it punishes the selfish and mean, according to two Michigan State University evolutionary biologists, who claim to disprove an earlier theory popularized in 2012.

We also learn that moral behavior is based on primitive disgust (not rational evaluation); altruism is really a form of sexual display; altruism is really just selfishness; a child must have a selfish motive for saving her sister’s life; and why we don’t (usually) hurt ourselves to hurt others.

Actually, it is far from clear that altruism selects for survival of selfish genes in humans. In addition to admirable self-sacrifice, there is also "pathological altruism" (often described as co-dependency), a common life- and health-endangering problem. In any event, as Oxford physiologist Denis Noble observes, "selfish genes" have no empirical basis in science. The idea, though "one of the most successful science metaphors ever invented," as David Dobbs tells us at Aeondoes not help us understand how actual genes work.

But never mind genetics, there is still neuroscience. Human brains, we are told, are "hardwired for empathy, friendship" (or they are wired to connect — as Forbes puts it, "Study: To the Human Brain, Me Is We"). "Our self comes to include the people we feel close to," explains one University of Virginia research team.

This likely is the source of empathy, and part of the evolutionary process, [psychology professor James] Coan reasons.

But if the researchers wish merely to defend the thesis that humans are social rather than solitary, the word "hardwired" and its connotations are comically wrong. The word derives explicitly from devices that do not evolve. If the brain is indeed evolving, then nothing is hard-wired, though some types of experience and behavior may predominate over time and be reflected in brain organization. It is not clear, though, which came first.

A media-friendly approach is to study the animal mind. A cottage industry in this field is the study of primates. The empathy chimpanzees offer is, we are told, key to understanding human engagement. That said, some researcher think that humans are not as empathetic as apes because we are less likely to engage in contagious yawning. But still others say that we can’t even predict the level of altruism in apes by their degree of kinship with humans.

"Humans and callitrichid monkeys acted highly altruistically and almost always produced the treats for the other group members. Chimpanzees, one of our closest relatives, however, only did so sporadically." Similarly, most other primate species, including capuchins and macaques, only rarely pulled the lever to give another group member food, if at all — even though they have considerable cognitive skills.

It depends, these researchers find, on "cooperative breeding." "When our hominin ancestors began to raise their offspring cooperatively, they laid the foundation for both our altruism and our exceptional cognition." Maybe. Could they be cooperative before they were altruistic? On the whole, it is not clear what we can learn from altruism in primates.

Animals do show empathy. But that’s part of the puzzle. Consider the monkey who rescued his electrocuted buddy. But then tortoises have been captured on film laboriously turning other upended tortoises back onto their feet.

The nature of the difficulty is apparent when we ask ourselves, what is the tortoise thinking? It is a reptile who cannot right itself, so how does it know enough to right another tortoise? When considering empathy in chimpanzees, we assume, with some justification, that the chimp who helps or shares has mental experiences analogous to those of humans. But if the famously slow-witted tortoise has such experiences as well, then there is not only no "Tree of Intelligence," there seems to be no Tree of Empathy either. Genetic closeness to humans may not have explanatory value for humans, any more than the supposed "selfish gene" does.

For human nature, evolution appears to be an endless well from which any lesson whatever can be drawn. And "evolutionary" explanations need not be informative; they need only be fully naturalist.

Editor’s note: Here is the "Science Fictions" series (the human mind) to date at your fingertips (the human mind).

Image source: (OvO)/Flickr.