Science and the problem of goodness

If evolution is about survival of the fittest, why do altruists survive? Shouldn't selfless behavior have been stamped out of our brains when it first appeared? Photo: Matthew Rice (Flickr)

WASHINGTON, June 6, 2012 — They appear with almost monotonous regularity: books and breakthroughs proclaiming that science has “solved” the riddle of human goodness. The obvious irony is that it is not long before another comes along claiming for itself the same finality.

Less obvious is that since 1975, when E.O. Wilson published his seminal Sociobiology, with the idea that social behavior is an evolutionary consequence of the genetic imperative to survive, the premise of these breakthroughs has changed little. Still they are wheeled out, and despite possessing an undeniable internal logic, the idea that human goodness or altruism is nothing more than a subtle form of selfishness has failed to win the hearts and minds of the general public.

Two of the most famous books in modern science have focused almost exclusively on this question of goodness. Wilson’s Sociobiology and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976) were the first to trumpet that the riddle had been solved. The answer, they claimed, lay in the concepts of reciprocity, kin and group selection - situations where you help others but only with the implicit goal of furthering your own genes’ interests.

It appeared that altruism wasn’t altruism at all, but rather disguised selfishness. Wilson put it this way: “Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function other than to ensure human genetic material … will be kept intact.” Dawkins went further: “Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense.”

The logic is compelling, and yet the idea has failed to rout the opposition. This is partly due to the standing of that opposition: The great Christian prophets have preached a moral law, and sworn to its immanence, and Christianity was founded around their teachings. Also, from the Greek roots of western civilization, our most cherished philosophers have taught the virtue of virtue. For them virtue is something to be learned and mastered (a techne), not a trait as effortless as the color of your hair.

There is also another source of resistance, and it is in our own subjective reaction to the theory. For my part I can say that while the logic is compelling, I am simply unable to look at my child when she shares her toys, or soothes her kid sister, or read about the footballer Joe Delaney’s sacrifice, when he said, “I can’t swim good, but I’ve got to save those kids,” and believe that I am seeing selfishness at work.

While it is well-trodden ground, perhaps it is time to take a fresh look at these theories, and the underlying premises they are based upon, and then perhaps reflect on why, despite the ardor of their advocates, they have failed to convince.

The place to start is with Charles Darwin and his breakthrough treatise, On The Origin of Species. It is no exaggeration to say that in it Darwin laid out the ground rules for what we today recognize as biology, and as we shall see, much psychology as well. Like so many great insights it is not a complicated idea. In fact, it is so deceptively simple that Thomas Huxley reportedly said, “how extremely stupid of me to not have thought of that!” Nonetheless, it is of critical importance to everything that has come since.

Darwin’s great insight was that the individuals that make up any population will all have slightly different traits; and that some of these traits will grant the individuals which carry them a reproduce advantage over the individuals that don’t. This means that traits that aid the individual’s chances of reproducing will have the best odds of surviving to be inherited by ensuing generations. This, in a nutshell, is the theory of natural selection.

Science did not stop there, and our understanding of natural selection was later deepened by an emerging understanding of the laws that govern inheritance. You may recall the Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel’s experiments with peas, then later the discovery of the DNA double helix by Watson and Crick in 1953. The accumulation of these developments has led to what we now know as genetics, and indeed our modern understanding of how evolution works.

But back to the riddle of our [occasional] human goodness: In order to understand why it is a riddle, and science’s difficulty in explaining it, understand that Darwin’s insight applies not just to physical traits, but behavioral traits as well. In other words, if we were to look at a population of finches, instincts that somehow help a finch reproduce will be inherited just as surely as the shape of its beak.

Understanding this was a “eureka” moment for many scientists - it seemed at last they had found the key that promised to unlock the mysteries of human behavior. The field of science that arose around this hope was called “evolutionary psychology,” and for a while it seemed it would fulfill its promise (some think that it has). Its adherents thought they could interpret the entire scope of the human condition on the basis of traits that must in some way help us reproduce. The theory should help us understand the purpose of any behavior. 

If the laws of natural selection dictate that traits that favor individuals’ reproductive fitness will predominate (i.e., selfish genes produce selfish traits), how could evolutionary psychology account for the existence of selflessness or altruism in human behavior? What reproductive advantage is there in behavior that causes you to risk life or limb to save your child, or even a stranger?

This column will explore the theories that try to deal with this question. Some of them appear to call into question our faith in goodness; others to reaffirm it. I will look at them all, but with the belief that when ultimately found, true understanding will support the wisdom of religion, not undermine it. Like the Lutheran, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Charles H. Townes, I believe that “they (science and religion) both represent man’s efforts to understand his universe and must ultimately be dealing with the same substance. As we understand more in each realm, the two must grow together … converge they must.”


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Jasper Macmasters

Jasper seeks to make sense of the human condition from wherever truth and knowledge can be found. He is guided by the words of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who said “The discovery of truth is prevented most effectively, not by the false appearance things present which mislead into error, nor directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice, which as a pseudo a priori stands in the path of truth and is then like a contrary wind driving a ship away from land, so that sail and rudder labour in vain.”

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