(apologies for the gendered title – culture evolves faster than idioms do)

Selfishness versus Altruism

Language makes us think that they’re opposite ideas: The selfish behave like no one matters but them, while the altruists sacrifice themselves for the good of others. But what if selfishness and altruism weren’t opposites, but rather the same phenomena, looked at from different perspectives?

We can see a hint of this perspective shift in the early theories about the evolution of cooperation developed by W.D. Hamilton. Hamilton was concerned with this longstanding puzzle about how a behavior which benefited others, but not the actor, could ever evolve by natural selection. His solution to the puzzle involved a simple equation: rB - C > 0

Inés Dawson from Draw Curiosity made a great video explaining this equation in more detail

The basic idea is that an altruistic behavior will evolve when the benefit that the behavior gives to the recipient (multiplied by the relatedness of the actor to the receiver) is greater than the cost to the actor. The extent of relatedness (sisters > cousins, etc) is critical for this to work. Basically, the equation says that altruism evolves when creatures are able to sacrifice for the good of their family.

In just about any biological example of altruism, there is a perspective that you could take which would show underlying selfish motives. But, reciprocally, most examples of selfishness can prove to have an altruistic silver lining.

For the Good of the Family…

Since Hamilton’s work in the 60’s, we’ve noticed lots of examples of altruism that don’t actually involve direct familial benefit. But still, even if it doesn’t involve genetically related families per say, altruism always involves helping those with whom the actor has something in common. Altruistic creatures act for the benefit of some entity or quality which both they, and those they are sacrificing for, share.

To put this a bit more poetically, altruists are actually, well, selfish, but the self they are interested in serving isn’t their personal body, but rather some sort of ‘higher self.’ Think of the honey bee, risking its life for the hive, or the martyr, dying “in the name of God.

This perspective shift works in the reverse direction too. Even the most selfish acts creatures perform, like theft, or violence, can only be accomplished by sophisticated altruistic cooperation among that creature’s cells. Skin cells, liver cells, kidney cells all work together, and regularly give up their cellular lives, so that the ‘higher self’ they are a part of can continue acting.

The takeaway here is that what we label as selfish and what we label as altruistic depends on our level of analysis. Selfish animals are made from altruistic cells, and altruistic animals, like bees, enable the selfish behavior of their hive.

This doesn’t mean that altruism doesn’t exist, or that selfishness is just in the eye of the beholder, but rather that these two ideas are intimately related. Here’s another video which explores their connection:

These videos are all part of an ongoing class called the EvoS Seminar Series. Every week a different guest lecture streams a talk, and then the class makes videos about the core concepts. We believe that the best way to learn science is to learn how to tell stories about it.

You can check out Inés Dawson’s excellent talk on the evolution of cooperation on her YouTube channel: Draw Curiosity

The EvoS Seminar Series (and this article) tries to provide a chain of content between science and narrative. We post articles, live lectures, and explainer videos which all present the same ideas from different perspectives and different levels of complexity.

Below is one more video about selfishness and altruism, this one made by artist Max Albee.

Subscribe to the EvoS Seminar Series for even more links in the Science to Narrative chain.

Image: Photoshop mosaic by Maximus Thaler; background image "The Haywain Triptych" by Hieronymus Bosch ; Wikipedia