Jean Lievens: Can Evolution Explain Kindness? Are Political, Social, & Economic Altruism Important?

Collective Intelligence, Cultural Intelligence, Earth Intelligence
Jean Lievens
Jean Lievens

The hard problem: Tom Stoppard on the limits of what science can explain

Can evolution explain acts of kindness, and morality? We arranged a debate between a sceptical Tom Stoppard and the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. Stuart Jeffries acted as referee

selfishness beats altruism within groups, but altruistic groups beat selfish ones

EXTRACT

n his book, Wilson tries to return evolutionary theory to the orthodoxy he claims Darwin believed in, namely that altruism is not a fiction, but rather involves real sacrifice that can be explained scientifically. He argues that, in evolutionary terms, selfishness beats altruism within groups, but that altruistic groups beat selfish ones. Consider, Wilson suggests, the male water strider. For our purposes there are two types: the “rapist” and the “gentleman”. The “rapist” attempts to mate without regard to female receptivity, the “gentleman” mates only when approached by females. Within groups, “rapists” out-compete “gentlemen” for mates and so, if within-group selection were the only force, the “gentlemen” water striders would be extinct. But they are not: “rapists” prevent females from feeding and so cause them to lay fewer eggs. Groups consisting of all “gentlemen” lay more than twice the number of eggs as those consisting of all “rapists”.

What’s true of water striders is true of all functionally organised groups, even human ones: in evolutionary terms, a functionally organised group of altruistic Mother Teresas would beat a functionally organised group of selfish Ayn Rands. Rand once wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness; Wilson’s suggestion is that, at a group level, it can become a vice, leading in extremis to a group’s extinction.

Phi Beta Iota: This is also true at the meta level — selfish political parties will make financial and ideological gains in the short term, but in the long term they are killing the nation that needs intelligence with integrity in the whole. The point then brings us back full circle to the culture of the society as it is communicated from one generation to another — as the educational system spirals downward into a “festival of ignorance” and laziness, the society becomes both stupid and selfish. It is an intellectual and moral cancer that is fatal.

See Especially:

Review: Homeland Earth

Review: Measuring Evolution

Review: Philosophy and the Social Problem–The Annotated Edition

See Also:

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