Interviews October 2007

Survival of the Kindest

Olivia Judson, author of "The Selfless Gene," discusses the evolutionary roots of altruism and fellow feeling
Dear Dr. Tatiana: I’m a queen bee, and I’m worried. All my lovers leave their genitals inside me and then drop dead. Is this normal? Perplexed in Cloverhill.

So writes a lonely apine monarch in Olivia Judson’s 1998 science book, Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation. The 320 pages teem with dejected creatures: a green spoon worm who inhales her lover, an African elephant whose penis turns green, an Idaho ground squirrel whose suitor stalks her into every burrow. The book’s format is an imaginative hybrid of Aesop’s Fables and Penthouse Forum, but Judson is an evolutionary biologist, not a sex therapist, and all of her tales point to the same sobering moral: relationships in the wild are driven by ruthless self-interest. Far from pleasing one another, creatures are concerned only with passing on their genes. In their single-minded fervor, they are willing to maim, kill, or leave their phalli behind.

It is unexpected, then, to read Judson’s latest piece in The Atlantic and find tales of what can only be called animal generosity. She describes curious platonic friendships between male and female baboons:

If a female is attacked or harassed, her friends will come bounding to the rescue; they will also protect her children, play with them, groom them, carry them, and sometimes share food with them. If the mother dies, they may even look after an infant in her place.

From a biological point of view, Judson points out, such altruistic acts are akin to suicide: they do nothing to ensure one’s own longevity or the survival of one’s genetic code. Yet examples of selflessness can be found throughout the animal kingdom, from the servile labor of the worker bee to the heroics of firemen charging into the crumbling World Trade Center.

Judson advances a number of hypotheses to explain this sort of behavior. Male lions who defend their pride demonstrate “kin selection”—even if they fail to procreate, they ensure that siblings or nephews will survive to pass the family genes along. In some cases, cooperation serves as a powerful tool for combating a common enemy or even disarming an attacker. Even more intriguingly, Judson posits that altruism might stimulate the reward centers of the brain, generating “warm, fuzzy feelings” that are as primal as hunger or lust.

Whatever the evolutionary underpinnings of generosity, Judson concludes that human beings are in a unique position to make the most of it. Bees swarming in a hive must resign themselves to lifelong roles as drones or workers or dominating queens, but human society is highly flexible. Thanks to the complex pathways of the human brain, enemies can become allies, underdogs can be elevated, and the noblest aspects of human nature can be passed along to future generations.

Olivia Judson is a research fellow at Imperial College in London and a science journalist who spent two years on the staff of The Economist. We spoke by telephone on August 13.

—Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

In the past, you’ve used anthropomorphism to liven up stories about animal behavior. But speculating about human behavior seems like a bit of a departure for you.

Writing this piece was like mud-wrestling a giant squid. I find writing about humans extremely difficult. There are some aspects of human nature that are very easy to study, and there are others that are very hard to study. In humans, there is a strong cultural component to behavior as well as a genetic one, and teasing apart which factors are contributing to which behaviors is quite difficult.

Whenever the concept of natural selection is applied to humans, it usually refers to the least humane elements of human nature. I’m thinking, for instance, of the Jack London story, “The Law of Life”—an elderly man begins to slow down his tribe’s progress, so his son leaves him in the snow to be devoured by wolves. Is this actually how things work in the wild?

The biology of group living is extremely interesting. One of the things I discovered recently is that the African hunting dog has a system of competitive submission. African hunting dogs live in packs, and they are one of the examples of an animal that does look after the elderly and sick members of the pack. Elderly and sick members of the pack can get themselves fed by begging more than somebody else. And because of the system of competitive submission—where the most submissive animal is the one that gets fed—a very elderly or sick animal will be looked after.

So on the one hand you have African hunting dogs, and on the other hand you have hyenas. The spotted hyena definitely has a system of competitive aggression. Looking at the different ways that other animals organize social systems does help us to start to understand what it is about our own that is fundamental.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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