Survival of the fittest? Anthropologist suggests the nicest prevail — not just the selfish

Are altruism and morality artificial outgrowths of culture, created by humans to maintain social order? Or is there, instead, a biological foundation to ethical behavior?

In other words, are we inherently good?

Social Animals

The prevailing view in popular and scientific literature is that humans and animals are genetically driven to compete for survival, thus making all social interaction inherently selfish. According to this line of reasoning, known as sociobiology, even seemingly unselfish acts of altruism merely represent a species’ strategy to survive and preserve its genes.

But Robert W. Sussman, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, argues that this is a narrow and simplistic view of evolutionary theory that fails to explain many aspects of sociality among mammals in general and primates in particular.

“The ‘selfish gene’ hypothesis is inadequate,” he says.

Sussman is a consultant to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER), which brings together scholars from various disciplines — including anthropology, biology, psychology, genetics and ethics, among others — to explore the biological roots of human nature from a multidisciplinary perspective.

Sussman and Audrey R. Chapman, Ph.D., director of AAAS’ Science and Human Rights Program, co-edited the first book developed from DoSER’s workshops and symposia.

Titled “The Origins and Nature of Sociality,” the recently released book presents a new paradigm for understanding sociality that seeks to synthesize data from a variety of disciplines.

“We believe that, instead of being genetically predisposed to competition and aggression, humans — and perhaps other animals as well — have a biological foundation for unselfish social interaction,” Sussman says.

“There are many examples of nonselfish altruism,” he adds. “How do you explain firefighters running into a burning building to save strangers at the possible expense of their own lives? There’s no biological imperative for that.”

Sussman mentions the many examples of courage and cooperative and altruistic behavior in response to Sept. 11. “The predominant theories in ethology concerning cooperative and altruistic behavior, claim that social animals, including human and nonhuman primates, are cooperative and altruistic only if they have something to gain from their actions,” says Sussman.

“However, the reaction of millions of people to the Sept. 11 event does not fit this paradigm. As The New York Times reported: ‘Hearing of the tragedy whose dimensions cannot be charted or absorbed, tens of thousands of people across the nation storm their local hospitals and blood banks, begging for the chance to give blood, something of themselves to the hearts of the wounded.’

“We are social animals,” he continues. “We derive pleasure from positive social interaction. It’s part of our brain chemistry. And far from being inherently violent, humans demonstrate a natural abhorrence of violence and conflict. We have to train soldiers to kill. It’s not instinctive.”

Sussman’s study of primates has shown that aggressive behavior is extremely rare, even among baboons, which have a reputation for aggression.

We are horrified by terrorism, he says, because violence, particularly indiscriminate murder, is a social aberration.

Rethinking natural selection

Most of the current discussion of evolutionary theory focuses on individual selection or, as it is sometimes phrased, survival of the fittest. Only the most successful individuals will pass on their genes to further generations, thus weeding out over time (or selecting “against”) genetic traits that do not enhance an individual’s chances of survival.

This sociobiological view explains “selfish” altruism, which generates reciprocal acts or otherwise facilitates survival within a group.

Robert Sussman (left) works with a student.

“But sociobiology and individual selection do not explain ‘unselfish’ unselfish behavior. By this I mean behavior that benefits others but potentially leaves the individual no opportunity to pass on his own genetic legacy,” says Sussman. “To explain that, we must give more consideration to group selection and the benefits of sociality.”

Charles Darwin himself believed that morality plays a role in human evolution by natural selection. A high standard of morality may give the individual and his children no advantage over other group members, Darwin wrote, yet it works to give his tribe an advantage over other tribes.

Thus, over time, groups whose members value morality or practice unselfish altruism are more likely to survive and thrive, passing on the genetic traits that encourage ethical behavior such as empathy, fairness and generosity.

Brain scans have shown this genetic legacy in humans, Sussman says, and it’s probably present in other mammals as well. Unselfish behavior stimulates pleasure centers in the brain sensitive to dopamine, which is associated with addictive behavior, and oxytocin, which is associated with mother-child bonding.

“It feels good to be nice,” he says.