Ever since I was a graduate student (now some years ago!), I have been hearing evolutionary biologists moaning about altruism. How could such a thing possibly evolve in the face of natural selection and fitness? A mother animal protecting her young was understandable – she was simply protecting the little forms that housed those selfish, precious genes. But what about unrelated animals – whales assisting other whales, dolphins sometimes helping humans, and humans (at least some of them) trying to protect all sorts of very distantly related life forms. The evolutionary biologists and theoretical ecologists hypothesized kin selection and species selection and performed various other explanatory contortions. More recently I have even read a bit of this wailing in my very favorite weekly, The Nation (maybe I’ll get around to finding the link to the article). I read this wonderful magazine for its views on politics, society and the arts – there’s usually not much about science, so I was surprised to find the usual painful arguments about altruism and whether it exists in a neo-Darwinian universe.
Most everybody seems to think there must be something wrong with the very idea of altruism, but this is only because the orthodoxy assumes natural selection is true and important. Nobody ever seems to think that perhaps the existence of altruism is a falsifier for the theoretical primacy of natural selection. If the theory disagrees with the evidence, then it is the theory that must be false, not the evidence! Perhaps it would all make more sense if we tried another theory, one that makes no assumptions about the selfishness of genes – genes are carriers of information that organisms use to make more of themselves. They are not little homunculi. Besides, if genes can be selfish, why can’t organisms be altruistic?
A theory that tries to explain evolution as an irreversible process where complexity increases over time might be more helpful. Multicellular forms evolved from single-celled life, but it didn’t stop there. Many organisms are able to communicate with others of their species, often in fairly sophisticated ways. Humans not only have language (and our primate cousins have versions of language, too), but we can communicate in abstract ways through such means as music, poetry, dance and so on. The capacity for wonderfully intricate communication appeared as part of the evolution of Homo sapiens (and probably in other species of Homo as well). Every new painting or bit of music adds information to the universe. Part of information is surprise, and surprise can be thought of as the dissipation of entropy in an organized (non-random) system.
So, why couldn’t altruism evolve? There’s no reason it couldn’t, but to see this as a possibility we must first shake free of the standard theory that isn’t very good anyway. I think there’s very good evidence that altruism exists in humans as well as other life forms. Not only should we consider that altruism can indeed evolve, we should cultivate the stuff. I think we need more of it!