Evolution And The Myth Of The Selfish Human

Why do people do good things?

Answer: “Because they benefit, stupid!”

It hardly seems an exaggeration to say that it’s a truism in Western culture that human beings are self-interested animals driven by a desire to maximize pleasure or wealth or reproductive advantage. Many people just accept that this is how humans are and that they can’t be otherwise.

The leading recent source for such views has been the synthesis of evolutionary theory and social theory known as sociobiology. According to these theorists, Richard Dawkins comes to mind, evolutionary theory proves that we’re all, for instance, a bundle of “selfish genes”. Our ultimate motive is always self-serving, no matter how different things may seem on the surface.

In this essay, I want to convince you that the conclusion that would be absolutely incorrect to draw from evolutionary theory is that human action is “really selfish”, and that sociobiology has sold us a false picture of human behavior.

What genes ‘want’

Ever since Darwin, there has been a strong tendency to interpret the theory of evolution in terms of a ruthless selfish battle for survival. Richard Dawkins concludes we are “born selfish”. Many economists claim — assume! — we will not understand human decision making until we realize that societies are collections of individuals pursuing their self-interest. And, as another example, the biologist Michael Ghiselin expresses a widely shared sentiment when he memorably writes “scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed.”

These are smart people. Their arguments deserve careful inspection. Let us, to that end, explore what it means to characterize natural selection in terms of “selfish genes”.

Natural selection occurs when a variant of a gene (an ‘allele’) tends to cause a modification of a bodily or behavioral trait (a ‘phenotypic’ modification) in the organism that has the gene, in a way that tends to cause that variant of the gene to increase its relative frequency in the next generation. Typically, this happens when the phenotypic modification is one that causes the organism to have greater reproductive success:

“If, in the overall context, allele A causes its carrier to have a trait T that causes the organism to have more offspring than other organisms in the population who carry rival allele A* and display alternative trait T*, then A will be inherited and carried by more organisms in succeeding generations; and that means that T will likewise be displayed by more organisms.” — William FitzPatrick, Morality and Evolutionary Biology (Stanford Encoclypedia of Philosophy)

This is clear enough. Genes are ‘selfish’ because they ‘aim’ at increasing ‘their’ representation in the gene pool, via improving the reproductive success of their carriers.

Because we are “carriers” in this sense, humans are, Dawkins suggests, “gene machines”. A body is made by genes that have been successful in surviving in the past; they’re good at surviving because they’re good at constructing machines in which they survive. So a body is a survival machine for the propagation of the genes that built it and it contains.

Takeaway: the fate of genes is crucially bound up with the fate of the body in which they sit.

How we get from there to the conclusion that human’s ultimate motives are self-serving is less straightforward. What ultimately increases an allele’s (recall: an allele is a variant of a gene) representation in the gene pool, is its having some effect on its carrier — us, the gene machine — that causes copies of that allele to be in more organisms in succeeding generations. That normally happens when this effect causes the organism to have greater reproductive success: having more reproductive success simply means to produce more copies of the gene.

However, crucially, survival chances of the gene also increase if it causes the survival machine’s kin to have greater reproductive success. They carry copies of that same gene, which means that greater reproductive success for kin likewise propagates its copies.

And so, it turns out certain kinds of helpful behavior tend to improve reproductive success, and thus might have been selected for in humans.

This is true.

Therefore, the ultimate reason why humans do good things, is that these behaviors promote their own reproductive success, the argument goes.

This is not true.

‘Selfish’ genes → Selfish people?

So far, we’ve seen that, based on evolutionary theory, sociobiology doubts whether any human actions are altruistic. All actions are done from the ultimate motive of self-gain. The claim is that since our genes are ‘ruthlessly selfish’ — whatever that means — so must human beings themselves be.

Suppose John is looking after his sick wife. When asked why he does so, he answers sincerely that he wishes to alleviate her suffering for her sake, because he loves her. An evolutionary psychologist might then tell us that it is to his reproductive advantage to look after his spouse, for then, if she survives, he will have help in raising his offspring, adding that the love that he feels for her is the output of a proximate mechanism by which natural selection ensures that a person helps his mate when she needs it.

Thus, an evolutionary explanation has been provided for a cognitive/emotional/behavioral phenomenon: John’s love for his wife. But this explanation reveals nothing about the content of his motivations, and doesn’t show that he “really” cares about his reproductive fitness and only derivatively cares about his wife’s welfare.

The inference confuses explaining where interests come from, with settling what interests are about.

For example, if my nervousness about a pending date is partially caused by the fact that I just drank four cups of strong coffee (had I not drunk the coffee, I wouldn’t now be nervous), it would be crazy to conclude that I really am nervous of the coffee! Yet people who think that evolutionary explanations reveal the “true” content of all our motivations, reasons, and interests fall foul of exactly this piece of mistaken reasoning.

More formally, self-interest explanations of individual acts, philosopher Richard Joyce explains, seem to rely on a dubious principle of Transference of Interest:

If [person] X has interests abc, etc., and X having those interests is explained by the fact that Y [his genes] has/have interests pqr, etc., then X’s interests are “subservient” to Y’s, and in fact X’s “real” or “ultimate” interests are pq,r, etc. — Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality

There is no reason to believe in this principle. It still confounds explaining the origin of interests with providing the content of those interests.

The source of this confusion may be an ambiguity in the notion of “a reason”.Johnn’s reason why he cares for his wife is her suffering. This is what motivates him and figures in his deliberations. A reason why her suffering motivates him may be that caring for one’s partner advances one’s fitness, and thus has been selected for in humans, and John is human. When we explain a person’s behavior by appealing to the fact that his genes have replication-advancing characteristics, we are giving reasons for his having these mental states and behaving in this way. But to conclude that these are therefore hisreasons — the considerations in light of which he acts — is a cynical mistake.“In exactly the same way, we can wonder about the reason that an avalanche occurred, but in doing so we are hardly wondering about what malicious motives the melting snow harbored,” Joyce points out.

In short: evolutionary theory gives us no reason to believe that a person’s reasons are all ultimately concerned with genetic replication.

Round 2

And while we’re at it, let me correct another misstep.

Many hedonistic utilitarians often make a false inference that is strictly analogous to the one made by evolutionary psychologists. The difference is that they think all humans care about is their own happiness, rather than their own reproductive success, but the form of the argument is the same (and the mistake is too).

Let us look, for instance, at the arch-utilitarian John Stuart Mill, writing in 1861. While he agrees that it seems as if people desire other things than just more pleasure and less pain, such as “virtue” in Mill’s example, he insists that all substantive wishes other than the desire for pleasure and the aversion to pain are desires for a particular object under the idea of it as pleasant or aversions to a particular object under the idea of it as painful:

There is in reality nothing desired except happiness. Whatever is desired otherwise than as a means to some end beyond itself, and ultimately to happiness, is desired as itself a part of happiness, and is not desired for itself until has become so. Those who desire virtue for its own sake, desire it either because the consciousness of it is a pleasure, or because the consciousness of being without it is a pain, or for both reasons united . . . If one of these gave him no pleasure, and the other no pain, he would not love or desire virtue.” — John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

Mill agrees that virtue is sought after by many people, but argues that insofar as they strive for virtue, they desire it as an ingredient of their own happiness. The point of his odd language is to defend hedonism by trying to show that people only want other things than happiness insofar as they desire those things as part of their happiness.

Suppose I want to go to the pub because I expect to meet friends there, have a drink and a chat. What I substantively desire — under the idea of it as a pleasant thing to do — is a chat with friends over a drink. This is not a means to something else I want, such as pleasure. It is the object of my desire. If you stop me meeting my friends at the pub, and give me something else just as pleasant, you haven’t satisfied my substantive desire, as you would have done if the only substantive desire in play was a desire for pleasure. I could truly protest “Yes, but that’s not what I wanted to do.”

Here’s another example, more closely related to the selfishness debate.

Suppose I join a group of car owners who ferry people who cannot make their own way to the local hospital in their cars. I join because I want to help others. If someone asked me why I joined I could truly say “because I enjoy making myself useful.” I could equally well answer by explaining why it’s useful to have an organized group providing ferry services to the hospital with their cars. I am contributing to the car service because it is helpful. I think that is a reason to help, and I am right. It is also true, I say, that I am contributing because I enjoy being helpful.

So while enjoyment does enter into the explanation of why I do what I do, it is incorrect that I act in order to get the enjoyment. The correct account of my motives is not that I have a desire for my own joy that combines with a belief that helping others will prove to be enjoyable. It is service to others that features in the desire’s content, not my own amusement.

As in the evolutionary case, a partial cause doesn’t warrant a redescription.

Whether a deed is selfish or altruistic depends on the deliberative motivating reasons for which it was done — the considerations in light of which it was performed — not on whether the person who does the action happens to end up benefiting from its performance.

No one actually lives like this

Even though egoism about human behavior is an interpretation many people seem to (erroneously) believe in, no one actually lives like this. That should give us pause.

Perhaps the clearest instance of the fallacy is the belief that genetic theory ‘shows’ that we all have a ruthless, burning desire to perpetuate our genes. Many people obviously have no such wish— sincere celibates, for example, or dual-income-no-kids couples who intend to keep it that way.

In fact, concern about our genes is incredibly shallow: few of us in the First World can be persuaded to give up elements of our lifestyle (to reduce CO2 emissions) by the thought that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will have a harder time if we don’t.

The actual ethnographic data blatantly falsifies societal predictions that selfish-gene theories make:

There is not a single system of marriage, postmarital residence, family organization, interpersonal kinship or common descent in human societies that does not set up a different calculus of relationship and social action than is indicated by the principles of kin selection.” — Marshall Sahlins, The Use and Abuse of Biology

In conclusion: in so far as sociobiology depends upon predicting that the traits in the human phenotype (the characteristics people actually have) are an expression, albeit unconscious, of a deep structure of concern for the reproduction of our own genetic material, it is deeply unpromising.

Be careful what you wish for

Dawkins is following a long tradition in implying that biology carries simple messages for understanding the sociology and psychology of human beings. As we saw in the beginning, such claims are omnipresent these days. Thus, while such metaphors should be regarded critically, it raises no eyebrows if you put the pure facts about probability and numbers in terms of ‘competing’ genes in universal ‘struggle’, each ‘aiming’ at ‘maximizing’ reproductive ‘successes and failures’.

Why should these we be unsympathetic to such language? First, as Dawkins knows, genes are not literally selfish. They have no brains. They cannot represent choices to themselves, choose one future over another. A gene cannot sit down and think and plan and evaluate and choose future outcomes in terms of which ones are good for its numbers. It’s no more selfish than a blackberry bush is selfish if it takes over a garden or a rose is polite as it yields up its place (recall Joyce’s avalanche as well). Clearly, there is no sense of purpose in any of that.


it would be extremely naive to regard this universal anthropomorphism as harmless. The metaphors determine our interpretation of nature in terms of classical economic competition; the interpretation of nature then feeds back to determine our interpretation of ourselves.” — Simon Blackburn, Ruling Passions

Besides the empirical reasons, there are also prudential considerations that speak against advertising such an ideology. These are relevant because, to some extent, we should evaluative the content of our beliefs on but on how well they make our lives go. It then becomes apparent that believing that all other-directed concern is hypocritical, or that all human transactions are ones of economic exchange, or that everyone is really selfish, will alter me, and you, much for the worse.

In the memorable words of psychologist Barry Schwartz:

Genes are indifferent to our theories about them. But this is not true of people. Theories about human nature can actually produce changes in how people behave. What this means is that a theory that is false can become true simply by people believing it’s true. The result is that, instead of good data driving out bad data and theories, bad data change social practices until the data become good data, and the theories are validated. — Barry Schwartz, Why We Work

For example, our understanding of what motivates people to work, Schwartz argues, have shaped the nature of the workplace in unfortunate ways — particularly when it comes to the ideology of incentives and the carrots-and-sticks approach to reward and punishment.

As Carl Jung said: ideas have people, not the other way around. This is not mere speculation. In fact, in Power, Pleasure, and Profithistorian of ideas David Wootton argues that the self-interest picture of human nature is a recent invention, not a natural manner of looking at things.

Go and figure.

All you need to know

Let’s wrap up.

While it’s true that human moral thinking is governed by dedicated mechanisms that evolved through the process of Darwinian selection, that doesn’t support the cynical theory that all human action is “really selfish”.

Dawkinian selfish-gene philosophies erroneously conflate distinct explanatory levels. In particular, they commit the mistake of confusing the cause of a mental state with its content. An evolutionary explanation for a phenomenon, such as someone’s love for his/her partner, reveals nothing about the content of this person’s motivations, and doesn’t show that he/she “really” cares about his reproductive fitness and only derivatively cares about his/her partner’s welfare. (I mean, really??)

Since this argument is invalid, evolutionary theory does not show that everyone is fundamentally an egoist. Nor is there any other reason to adopt this outlook. As many parents know, and as psychologists and anthropologists repeatedly find, nothing observed encourages us to think this way.

Return finally to the question we started with: Why do people do good? Is it because some humans might — lo-and-behold — actually be virtuous?