Altruists together

A US soldier assists a member of his unit during the Battle of Okinawa in the Second World War.
Altruists together
Herbert Gintis applauds two books that powerfully
enrich the dialogue on behavioural science.
re humans basically selfish yet
browbeaten by society into curbing
their instincts? Or are they basically
altruistic but corrupted by unjust societies?
These age-old questions are now asked by
behavioural scientists and discussed in journals such as Nature. Evolutionary biologist
David Sloan Wilson’s Does Altruism Exist?
and science historian Michael Shermer’s The
Moral Arc are brilliant contributions to this
branch of sociopolitical discourse.
Applying scientific principles to human
society is hard. Society is a complex dynamical, adaptive nonlinear system. Moreover,
rapid technical change, increased population
density and globalization mean that we cannot reliably predict the future from the past.
Even human nature, forged tens of thousands
of years ago, turns out to be stunningly plastic.
Wilson’s question is: do actions that mainly
benefit unrelated others at personal cost exist?
Could anyone doubt it? We give to charity,
vote for public education even when we have
no children, and volunteer to fight and die in
war. People conform to social norms even
when no one is looking, and punish the antisocial behaviour of others even when it is
costly to do so. Yet for decades, a countervailing theory has held in biology and economics.
Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene
(Oxford University Press, 1976), reflected
the opinion then current among biologists:
“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism,
because we are born selfish.” Some 35 years
later, in Nature, 137 evolutionary biologists
Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and
the Welfare of Others
Yale University Press: 2015.
The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason
Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and
Henry Holt: 2015.
5 5 0 | N AT U R E | VO L 5 1 7 | 2 9 JA N UA RY 2 0 1 5
petitioned that “natural selection leads organisms to become adapted as if to maximize
their inclusive fitness” (P. Abbot et al. Nature
471, E1–E4; 2011) — even in the most highly
social species, individuals primarily help relatives. In fact, inclusive-fitness maximization
is a pious wish of many population biologists
that has never been validated in theory or fact.
Wilson’s basic principle is the group-selection credo: “Selfishness beats altruism within
groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.
Everything else is commentary” (D. S. Wilson
and E. O. Wilson Q. Rev. Biol. 82, 327–348;
2007). As Charles Darwin noted in The
Descent of Man (Murray, 1871), a huntergatherer band with many brave, altruistic
soldiers will triumph over a group made up
mostly of selfish cowards, even though the
best thing of all for an individual is to be a
coward surrounded by brave compatriots.
The mathematics supports this scenario.
It is fashionable to question this view, but
the theoretical issues have been resolved for
decades. Groups do not mate or produce offspring, and so do not have biological fitness.
Rather, the social organization of a species,
its mating patterns and social groupings, is
inscribed in the genomes of species members.
Groups with successful social organization
tend to enhance the fitness of their members,
whose genomes code for this organization.
Altruism can evolve in such groups, provided
that altruists tend to be grouped preferentially
with other altruists, in which case their biological fitness can on average be at least as
high as that of selfish types.
As Wilson shows, another important
source of human success is that cultures stress
cooperation within the group, and so punish antagonistic individuals. This has led to
humans ‘domesticating themselves’, favouring
a human nature that is relatively docile and
dependent on the company and approval of
others. Moreover, humans have evolved to
coordinate their behaviour, each member of
a team ‘reading the minds’ of the others and
identifying with common goals (see Michael
Tomasello’s A Natural History of Human
Thinking; Harvard University Press, 2014).
Shermer’s The Moral Arc, although
grounded in behavioural game theory and
social psychology, is the more speculative
book. He offers a defence of science and reason as emancipatory tools in the face of bigotry, pseudoscience and faith. He, too, argues
that humans are basically moral and cooperative, but adds that they are parochial. When
their community is threatened, people turn
compassion for kin into hatred for outsiders.
Shermer’s central point is that even evil
people are generally motivated by their own
particular morals. In the perpetrators’ minds,
violence against outsiders is the application
of justice. This requires that the enemy be
deemed inferior and the cause of problems
— an excuse historically manipulated by
Machiavellian leaders to gather support for
their ambitions, as when the Nazis blamed the
Jewish people for Germany’s economic woes.
This is where science, technology and
reason come into play, Shermer argues: the
growth of global information and communications networks has rendered it increasingly
difficult to perpetrate the falsehoods that let
authoritarian leaders maintain their rule. For
Shermer, an increasingly educated populace with access to information undermines
parochialism and pseudoscience, by allowing
people to judge for themselves. The role of
smartphones and social media in fuelling the
2011 Arab Spring uprisings is a case in point.
This is a welcome turnaround from The
Believing Brain (Times, 2011), in which Shermer argued the rather nihilistic position that
“beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs
follow”. In The Moral Arc, Shermer, founder
of the Skeptics Society, adheres to Enlightenment thought. His sub­title, How Science and
Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice,
and Freedom, evokes the call to arms of philosopher Immanuel Kant in his 1784 What
is Enlightenment?: “Have the courage to use
your own understanding.”
Some of Shermer’s positions would have
surprised Enlightenment writers. Kant, for
instance, believed that the oppressive state
and authoritarian church were the sole
impediments to truth and justice. We know
now that even people with access to the ballot
box and free expression can embrace intolerant and obscurantist doctrines. Moreover,
Voltaire and others believed that the uneducated could not apply reason to the affairs of
life. Shermer, by contrast, is a vigorous proponent of political democracy and equal rights.
Shermer’s is an exciting vision, but he is
mistaken in thinking that truth, freedom
and justice are the inevitable by-products of
scientific advance. Modern liberal democracy
is the product of masses of people collectively
throwing off the yoke of authoritarian states.
But the power of popular action was made
possible by a military technology: the handgun. This displaced elite cavalry and required
nations to give the vote to peasants and citizens, who became the lifeblood of military
defence. Even today, the United States, with its
formidable drones and missiles, cannot win a
war without ‘troops on the ground’.
We must be on constant guard against new
instruments of information control, persecution and death that could once again render
secular and religious totalitarianism a viable
social alternative. Constant vigilance by
altruists such as Wilson and rationalists such
as Shermer may in the end win the day. ■
Books in brief
Herbert Gintis is external professor at the
Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. His most
recent book is A Cooperative Species (with
Samuel Bowles).
e-mail: [email protected]
2 9 JA N UA RY 2 0 1 5 | VO L 5 1 7 | N AT U R E | 5 5 1