Interviews October 2007

Survival of the Kindest

Olivia Judson, author of "The Selfless Gene," discusses the evolutionary roots of altruism and fellow feeling

I find it thought-provoking that you describe altruism as a kind of primal urge, not a rational behavior but a basic instinct like lust.

I think it is primal. Evolutionary biologists get very excited about things like suicide because if you commit suicide before you ever have offspring, your genes get removed from the population. In terms of cooperation, helping somebody else raise their own children and never having your own is a kind of genetic suicide, so evolutionary biologists get very excited about that. The question is, from a genetic perspective, why do these small acts of niceness happen?

I think it’s part of the evolution of social groupings. But maybe it has a bigger benefit, or maybe it just makes the creature feel good. Certainly our conscious explanation for why we do things isn’t usually that it allows us to have more children. Our conscious explanation is that we get a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling. And maybe baboons get warm, fuzzy feelings.

Is there a way to study the brain or nervous system of a primate and figure out whether he or she is actually experiencing a warm, fuzzy feeling?

It would be wonderful to be able to look into the thought processes of a chimpanzee. Brain scans are all the rage in humans right now, and yet, still, they’re pretty crude. We can see that blood flow increases to a particular brain area, and we make the assumption that if blood flow is increasing there, there’s more happening there. But that’s not the same as knowing what somebody is thinking.

In any case, this is a very complex area, the question of altruism. To a psychologist, I gather, if you get the warm, fuzzy feeling, you’re not being altruistic, because you actually enjoyed it. So to a psychologist, somebody is only being altruistic if they do something for somebody else and they don’t enjoy it. I think that’s a rather stringent definition, myself. I think you should be able to enjoy it.

And certainly in evolutionary terms, that would be the proximate mechanism. The fact that you enjoy helping somebody would be what mediates the activity—the sort of hormonal feedback that you get from an old woman smiling at you after you help her across the street or whatever.

Some species like ants and bees seem to identify more with their whole group than with their individual needs—they share a “hive mind.” Is that an instance of primal generosity?

I think it is very difficult to compare the behavior of an ant to the behavior of a human, even though it’s often done in an amusing sense of how we are trudging off to work, and how we are hiving away like bees. The social organizations of ants and bees are rigid. But our social organizations are extremely fluid. And many complex insect behaviors are hardwired. For example, many wasps are solitary, and yet a female will hatch and will be able to recognize males of her own species, will know what prey to capture, and will be able to build a nest, even though she’s never seen anybody else do that. So I don’t think there has to be a conscious thought process of “I’m helping out here.” I suspect very much that there isn’t.

What about the African hunting dogs you mentioned a moment ago? Do the dogs take care of each other because they identify, in some way, with the wellbeing of the group?

Well, it’s hard to know. The elderly dog may just be tapping into something young dogs do—young dogs beg for food. You see a dog begging and you feed it. The problem is that it’s very hard to know what goes on in the mind of another human, and it’s even harder to look at a chimpanzee and say, “Does this chimpanzee feel something like vengeance? Does it feel hostility?” They certainly behave in very hostile ways. Chimpanzees have levels of violence in their communities, which, if a human community were to have something similar, would be considered absolutely horrendous. Although it strikes me as very likely that some people enjoy killing other people. Yet we are also capable of much greater acts of kindness and generosity.

In the article, you mentioned that the ability to “appease aggressors” is a key factor in survival. Is there a way to appease an aggressor other than killing it or outrunning it?

Absolutely. A lot of animals have elaborate procedures for showing submission so the aggressor will not actually carry out an act of violence. If you take something like a male baboon, he might sort of cuff you over the head, or he might be more aggressive, or he might bare his teeth, but if you behave in the appropriate “Oops, I didn’t really mean it” sort of way, then it’s quite likely that a formal act of aggression can be avoided, certainly that a serious act of aggression can be avoided.

Presented by

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

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In