Charles Darwin didn’t quite understand altruism. In fact, he worried that its existence potentially threatened the entire Theory of Natural Selection. But, one of the reasons for this was because Charles Darwin considered evolution at the level of the organism. However, we now know, as popularized in “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins that evolution works at the level of the gene, not the level of the organism. And, this makes a world of difference when it comes to explaining altruism. As Dawkins puts it, “Organisms are just vessels for genes. Genes travel within us and within every animal through multiple generations, surviving on the basis of how well suited they are to their environments. In other words, you are evolutionarily programmed to protect the survival of, not necessarily yourself, but your genes.
But, why is this important? Well, the primary means of passing on your genes is through reproduction. When a child is born, that child gets all of its genes from its parents – 50% from its mother and 50% from its father. Your child contains your genes. And, so, by raising them and protecting their survival, you are allowing your genes to prosper. And this is why when you think of the ultimate case of altruism, where a person would do absolutely anything for another, a mother’s love for her child kind of tops the bill. In fact, say a mother has three children. It would actually make sense for that mother to sacrifice her life in order to preserve their survival. This is ultimate altruism. But, if those three children go on to reproduce, then the mother’s genes will go on to be more prosperous than they would have been if she’d have saved herself at her children’s expense. By acting selflessly, she is selfishly preserving her genes. And, suddenly, this kind of parental altruism makes a whole lot more evolutionary sense.
But, wait, this doesn’t just work from a mother to a child. You also share your genes, which you inherited through your parents, with any siblings that you might have. In fact, you share about 50% of your genes with your siblings, precisely the same amount that you share with your children. So, by showing them altruistic behavior, too, you are again increasing your genes’ prospects for survival, the basis of Natural Selection.
So, why, then is the altruism of a mother generally stronger towards her child than, say, her sister? Well, firstly, there’s an extra layer of dependence between a mother and a child but, also, when we were developing our morality, it took a lot more effort to raise a child from a mother than it did from a father. It was very common for men to go around and impregnate multiple women, and if women had multiple children, for each child to have a different father. This means that siblings tended to be half-siblings, lowering the genetic similarity. It just perfectly explains the hierarchy of the priority of care, and it’s one of the reasons why I just love evolution.
And, this second kind of altruism is called “kin altruism,” because it works on the basis of protecting the survival of your kin in order to protect the survival of the genes which reside within them. And, it doesn’t stop there. This can be extended even further to cousins, nieces, nephews, and ultimately to everyone. And, this expanding circle of morality is discussed at much greater length in Peter Singer’s “The Expanding Circle,” which is a book that I highly recommend.
Now, of course, the conditions of human life have altered drastically since the time of the inception of morality. But, our modern way of living, with its societies and economic systems and global communication, makes up only an inconceivably tiny speck on the end of the great timeline of humanity. And, just like goosebumps, the human tailbone, leg bones in whales, and wings on an emu, the remnants of our ancestral history leave us with traits and tendencies which are built into our nature. And, in this case, the vestigial characteristic in question is morality, a Darwinian by-product of our evolutionary history.
But, doesn’t that make morality just entirely meaningless? Well, look, I’m not saying that people consciously act morally only to serve their self-interest. Think about the experience of love. When we experience love, the feeling can be explained by biological and chemical science. But, that doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy being loved and sincerely love other people that we should be skeptical of the real motives of our partner’s affection. We simply understand where it came from and why it occurs.
I don’t think that when a soldier is confronted with the opportunity to save his squad by putting his life on the line that he takes a moment to assess the evolutionary advantage of acting altruistically. No, he’s just acting according to his natural and evolutionary instincts. And, explaining why such moral acts occur through kin or reciprocal altruism in absolutely no way diminishes their nobility. Sometimes, rather counter-intuitively, selfless behavior of the organism can work in the selfish-interest of the gene. The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, once articulated what is now known as “Hume’s guillotine” or the “Is-ought problem”. It’s a fallacy to assume that is’s can always lead to ought’s. Evolution is a fact. But, don’t conflate an understanding of Natural Selection with an advocacy of social Darwinism or any kind of ideology which dictates how we ought to behave. Or, in short, we don’t have to be selfish just because our genes are.
Thanks, Alex. Now that we know more about the origin of morality, it’s time to get philosophical and ask, “What is the nature of morality? Is it subjective? Can you have objective moral truths without God?” To watch me answer these questions and a whole lot more, head on over to Alex’s channel, “Cosmic Skeptic”. The link’s in the Description. And, while you’re there, be sure that you show him some love, and hit that Subscribe button. Thank you guys so much for watching, and thanks, as always, to my incredible patrons. You guys rock! Don’t drink the koolaid.
“Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things.
But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”Steven Weinberg
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