The Evolution of Nice

From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

Most people reading this blog will have heard of the “selfish gene”—the idea, formally defined by W.D. Hamilton and popularized by Richard Dawkins, that what matters from the perspective of evolution is not organisms, but genes. Those genes that maximize their chances of survival—regardless of what happens to individuals—will be the ones that come to predominate.

It comes in for a lot of flack, mostly from people who wrongly equate selfish genes with selfish people. To be fair, there is also a lot of confusion over terms, with old ideas being reinvented under new terms like “group selection.”

Stuart West, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, is here to put us straight. In a recent paper written specifically with social scientists in mind, he lays down the power of the selfish gene. It’s a great paper that takes a look at why so many misconceptions have taken hold and lays out, in nonspecialist language, the reasons why most criticisms of the “selfish gene” are a result of confusion rather than insight. Anybody who’s interested in the evolution of human altruism should read it.

Most people with an interest in evolution understand why selfish genes do not mean selfish individuals. It’s clear that selfish genes will benefit from cooperation (you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, also known as reciprocity) and kin selection (as the biologist J.B.S. Haldane famously put it, “I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins”).

What most people may not know (I certainly didn’t before reading West’s article) is that these, in fact, are the sole genetic basis for altruism (barring some esoteric mathematical possibilities of little practical significance). But if that’s the case, how do you get from here to the apparently completely selfless altruism sometimes seen in humans? How come we are kind to strangers?

Well, it really is all to do with how humans work together in groups.

You scratch my back and I’ll scratch Bob’s

Reciprocity doesn’t need to be direct to be effective. If, by sharing with you, I help to set up a virtuous circle, that will likely result in some benefit to me down the line. This has been seen in practice, with virtuous deeds propagating out to at least three degrees of separation.

In group life, the issue is even clearer. If my deeds help the group to survive and grow, then I will benefit. From a genetic perspective, it doesn’t matter that most of the benefit goes to others—so long as I also get some overall survival benefit.

I would lay down my life for eight cousins … or the bloke who lives next door

Throughout most of human existence, we’ve lived in small groups and not traveled much. What that means is that for our ancestors, pretty much everyone they met was a close genetic relative. Even if they were not related in any formal sense—not brothers, or cousins, for example—they would still be carrying similar genes.

And that means that your kin, from a genetic standpoint, is likely to be anyone who’s in your group. Even people in neighboring groups are going to be closely related. So evolution would favor genes that promote altruism to anyone nearby—since they likely carry the same genes. It won’t be perfect, but so long as migration is low, it’s a good enough rule of thumb.

What’s this got to do with religion?

It’s popular at the moment to talk about religion in terms of “gene-culture coevolution.” The idea behind this is that religion is a cultural adaptation that builds upon a bunch of otherwise unrelated psychological misfirings to promote prosocial behavior. Since cultures that are prosocial are more successful, religion spreads.

All well and good, but the question then is: What kind of altruism does religion promote? If it promotes the kind of altruism that is directed toward neighbors, then it’s working together with evolution, and so the two can coevolve. But religion that promotes more general altruism—”universal love”—is not going to be favored, at least from an evolutionary perspective.

Of course, in the modern world, we see a lot of both kinds of religion. The challenge for anyone trying to explain religion in terms of evolutionary psychology is to explain this!

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One Response

  1. Marius says:

    “But religion that promotes more general altruism—”universal love”—is not going to be favored, at least from an evolutionary perspective.”

    It’s not immediately clear to me why you say it wouldn’t.

    But I’ll go ahead and guess you mean because its effects won’t be local, so there’s no local advantage(?)

    If that is the case, then I would disagree. The effects of a religion advocating universal love would still locally benefit the status of those practicing it. I give to the disaster victims in Japan, but my neighbour thinks that’s awesome.

    Concurrently, a religion advocating universal love might just induce me to commit local love as a first step. My neighbour, again, benefits.

    As I see it, it’s like aiming for the moon and hitting the sky.

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