In Does Altruism Exist, David Sloan Wilson lays down the most advanced theory of how natural selection works. He reduces libraries worth of research and studies to a single statement: Within groups, selfish behavior by individuals succeeds, but between groups, groups with more altruistic behavior succeed.
Wilson defines altruism purely in terms of action, not distinguishing whether the motive is selfish or not. If the action benefits others and not the individual, it is altruistic. If the action benefits the self (or the self more than it helps others), it is selfish. Wilson further distinguishes between low-cost altruism like sharing your popcorn and high-cost altruism like dying in war.
Science finds that within a group, the more selfish individuals thrive, making selfishness within a group or a species the best way to survive, which in the case of evolutionary theory, means transmitting your genes to the next generation. But time after time, groups with higher percentages of altruistic acts beat those with more selfish acts and actors, which means the group with more altruism reproduces more members.
In fact, some scientists now theorize that altruism drove some very fundamental advances in evolution. One cell creatures became multi-cell creatures because so many of the one-cellers started to work together with other one-cellers and then specialized in a function while working together. Instead of acting in their own best interest, they did what was best for the group until they became attached to one another as a brand new type of organism. According to this theory, the same type of cooperation may have caused the transition from bacteria to single-cell creatures with nuclei. No one is saying that bacteria or single-cell animals thought about the group, only that they acted in the group’s best interest. The ultimate in this kind of inter-group cooperation are the superorganisms formed by bees or ants, entire colonies in which certain individuals play lesser roles that advance the whole.
Those who buy this version of evolution—and I count myself among them—will quickly see that the economic theories that currently guide our politics doom us to failure. Since the ascent of Ronald Reagan, we have enthroned the selfish pursuit of material gain as the greatest good for all, and for society. Our basic economic theory—taken out of context from an 18th century economic philosopher—is that if everyone pursues their own selfish interests, unconstrained, all of society will thrive. As Sloan points out, this benevolent “invisible hand” does not really exist.
Sloan, does not, however, put America’s reliance on selfishness into a real-world context. Our infrastructure of roads, bridges and mass transit are in disrepair. Public schools and universities suffer from a lack of public support. We lag behind other nations in terms of basic research into alterative energy technologies. This deterioration in the fitness of the United States results from the selfish acts of wealthy individuals and their factotums in elected offices, all dedicated to the politics and the economics of selfishness. The selfish acts entailed cutting taxes on the wealthy and spending by the government.
But does the decline make us weaker relative to other human groups, most of which face similar social dislocations?
It doesn’t matter, because it certainly weakens the larger group called the human race, makes us less fit as a species to survive. The mindlessly consumer society and the politics of selfishness seem to reign in most parts of the world, although often to a lesser extent than in the United States. Our actions are rapidly heating the world, and at a certain point it will get so hot that it will become inhospitable to humans—too many crop failures, too many epidemics, too many wars over fresh water, oil and other scarce resources, too many massive deaths from super hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes.
We are close to reaching a tipping point, and the only way to avoid it is for all of us in industrialized nations to sacrifice, to act altruistically. Curtailing driving and perhaps ending private ownership of automobiles, using mass transit, composting, keeping the temperature cooler in winter and warmer in the summer, recycling, taking fewer vacations, paying more for energy and products, living with fewer possessions in smaller spaces—this list does not exhaust the major and minor changes that we all have to make. Perhaps most critically, we have to limit our births—one child per person—to reduce our population without war, famine or epidemic. We have to structure our economy to deliver goods and services to a declining population. All these actions will involve restraining the individual for the good of the whole. Whether mandated or voluntary, the actions we need to take to make our species fitter are all altruistic.