The Enlightened Caveman


Is Man Inherently Selfless?
December 17, 2004, 3:55 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Science

Original Post (with comments)
Scientific American is putting out a new quarterly magazine called Scientific American MIND. I picked up what they’re calling the premier issue (although there are letters to the editor regarding the previous one – go figure) and found an interesting article on a topic I’ve written about before. That topic is altruism. My thesis, the one I’ve gotten from evolutionary psychologists, has been that altruism doesn’t really exist, that seemingly benevolent actions are really just selfish acts with less obvious payoffs than usual. The article, entitled “The Samaritan Paradox,” argues that this thesis may be flawed. The authors, Ernst Fehr (an economist from the University of Zurich) and Suzann-Viola Renninger (a journalist educated in biology and philosophy, also in Zurich) put forth the notion that humans may indeed be endowed with genes for selflessness and truly altruistic behavior. Hmm. As much fun as it might be to be debunk the prevailing scientific wisdom, I don’t think these two are up to it.

Their argument is full of holes, which is understandable – them being Swiss and all. (Get it?  Swiss cheese…) It rests on what they deem to be the perennially intractable problem with the selfish gene theory – the presence of people who give and give with no hope of ever getting – people like Mother Theresa and volunteers who rush to the aid of perfect strangers after natural disasters. They write,

Such sacrifice does not follow the rules of evolutionary biology. If the immediate family does not profit and if neither reciprocal aid nor aid aimed at improving reputation promise future advantage, then selflessness gains nothing. Worse, it is costly in terms of resources, health, or money. By this logic, there really should not be any good Samaritans. Yet they clearly exist.

Well, I guess that settles it. Sarcasm aside, I think this is a good example of how evolutionary theory gets contentious. These two authors have pitted themselves against the master himself, Richard Dawkins, in suggesting that his elegantly simple theory may be overblown. The problem is that they cannot see the forest for the trees. Instead of considering the simple (and obvious, at least to me) solution, they run off on a long tangent about “punishment” games. Fehr and Renninger attempt to prove the exception to the selfishness disguised as altruism concept by citing games which show that “many people – even when facing high monetary stakes – are willing to penalize others at a cost to themselves to prevent unfair outcomes or to sanction bad behavior.”  This proves nothing.

In my mind, it is obvious why we see selfless acts that clearly have no payoff. It’s the caveman mind in a modern world problem. We can’t forget that our emotions evolved to motivate us to do things that would see to our survival. As I’ve mentioned before, sympathy has been referred to as nature’s bargain hunter. It works like this: a caveman walking along stumbles on a guy who’s down on his luck and hungry. This caveman, all of sudden, starts to feel this twinge of emotion that is discomforting. Looking for some way to assuage his tortured mind, he offers some meat to the hard-luck character. Voila – he feels better. The consequence? He gets back more meat than he gave at some point down the road, or he has a new ally in the dangerous game of making it to the next day. All other things being equal, the caveman with this emotional proclivity has a better chance of surviving than the caveman who ignores the guy in trouble – he gets a large return on a small, insignificant investment. But, though we have the same genes, we are not cavemen.

The crumbling of the false hope that mankind is at his core benevolent hinges on the idea that our minds, and therefore our emotions, were designed for an environment that no longer exists. This explains why they should be going haywire, so to speak, in modern times. In caveman days, life was not as anonymous as it is today. In a tight knit social environment, bargain-hunting emotions flourished because they led to actions that benefited the individuals that had them. In this world, however, it isn’t inconceivable that those emotions (since they are today what they were back then) could lead to acts that would result in no benefit whatsoever. Emotions are powerful, and sometimes we humans do whatever they command – like running into a burning building to save someone we don’t know, dying in the process. In my view, it’s more likely that selfless acts are indicators of miscalculating anachronistic selfish motives than they are of some inherent selflessness in mankind. Given the countless other ways our ancient emotions steer us wrong, this just makes the most sense. The good news is, however, that these ill-fated emotional tendencies need not be attenuated.

Just as love is not achieving its original aim – getting us to pump out as many offspring as possible – neither is sympathy. But far from being cause for alarm, this is cause for celebration, for it means that we are not doomed to operate as robots blindly following our emotions, as our cave-dwelling ancestors were. We can, instead, harness them for our own enjoyment of life, clinging to the ones that make us happy and discarding the ones that weigh us down – we need only understand them. Furthermore, considering that the prevailing theme throughout the history of mankind has been the struggle for power between the haves and the have-nots, is it not reasonable to conclude that we are naturally selfish, but that a few, the enlightened, have consistently raised the bar of compassion in human society? So to Fehr and Renninger I say, nice try, but you’re fired.

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