Altruism vs. Selfishness

Comment / by David Sloan Wilson /

The idea that evolution explains selfishness well and altruism poorly is starting to stink. Can we please bury it now?

The conflict between altruism and selfishness, good and evil, is an eternal theme in religion and literature. It also threatens to be an eternal controversy in evolutionary theory. Eric Michael Johnson’s review of Frans de Waal’s latest book emphasizes empathy and cooperation’s role in evolution, so as one of the original proponents of group selection theory, I’d like to use it in making some general points on where this debate currently stands.

Selfish genes don’t mean selfish individuals.

Regardless of what Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling may have thought, selfish gene theory does not predict that individuals are invariably selfish. Richard Dawkins has repeatedly made this point and his rowing crew metaphor illustrates the idea of selfish genes pulling together to collectively survive and reproduce. On the other hand, Dawkins is frankly inconsistent on this subject, frequently implying that it is a dog-eat-dog world at the individual level after all. One of my own blogposts titled “What do selfish genes, and memes, really mean?” addresses this inconsistency.

Cooperation is a real theory.

It’s a stretch to say that Peter Kropotkin’s theory of mutual aid had to wait more than 100 to be reexamined. There have always been theories of cooperation, which tended to be uncritically accepted during the first half of the 20th century, uncritically rejected during the second half, and now—with luck—are maturing into a consensus that won’t swing back and forth like a frictionless pendulum.

Evolution helps explain all behaviors.

The idea that evolution explains selfishness well and altruism poorly is so dead that it is beginning to smell. Can we please bury it now? Evolution explains the full range of behaviors, from extreme selfishness to extreme altruism. What evolves in any particular case depends upon the underlying environmental conditions, which are fairly well specified by now. No one should be surprised anymore by the raw fact that kindness exists in nature. The frontier of science has moved on to a more refined set of questions.

Altruism is only locally disadvantageous.

Darwin clearly understood the fundamental problem associated with the evolution of altruism: It is locally disadvantageous. Place an altruist and a selfish individual next to each other and the selfish individual wins. How can a behavior evolve in the total population when it is never at a local advantage?

Darwin also clearly understood the nature of the solution: Altruism is advantageous at a larger scale. Groups of altruists out-compete groups of non-altruists, even if altruism is selectively disadvantageous within each group. This is the theory of multilevel selection, in which different traits are favored at different levels. The term multilevel selection wasn’t coined until later, but the whole point of group selection theory was to solve the problem posed by a conflict between levels of selection.

Rejecting group selection was wrong.

The rejection of group selection as an important evolutionary force in the 1960s was one of the biggest blunders in the history of evolutionary thought. The extremely simple idea—I was just able to describe in just a few lines—was branded as so wrong that it became deeply heretical. Ever since, most evolutionists have scrupulously avoided using the “G-word” rather than facing the fact that all evolutionary theories of social behavior obey the logic of multilevel selection, including the scenarios invoked by Frans de Waal, Joan Roughgarden, and many others.

Now scientists are afraid of it.

It’s easy to appreciate the short-term benefit to the individual scientist of avoiding the “G-word,” but this is a form of selfishness because the long-term cost to the field as a whole is huge. My lengthy review article with E.O. Wilson titled “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology” can be summarized as follows: If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, maybe it’s a duck. Let’s go back to the beginning and build a new field-wide consensus based on the fact that selfishness beats altruism within groups, altruistic groups beat selfish groups, and everything else is commentary. 

After 35 years, this kind of debate is growing perverse.

Next year will mark the 35th anniversary of my first publication on group selection. Such a protracted controversy over such a simple set of issues is not normal science. I therefore started to write a series of blogposts titled “Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection” that expands the scope to consider social and cultural factors, in addition to the conceptual issues.

The blog format should not disguise my serious intent. The group selection controversy requires a truth and reconciliation process in the same way that protracted political controversies do. The resulting new consensus will lead to a much simpler and more productive understanding of altruism and selfishness in the future.

Originally published September 26, 2009

Tags cognition competition genetics social science

Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM