Interviews October 2007

Survival of the Kindest

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

You mentioned that monogamy actually helps the spread of altruism. How does that work?

If you have small groups living together in communities and they are fighting each other and one community can exterminate the other, then you might expect that over time the more cohesive, cooperative groups are more likely to be the winners because they are more likely to cooperate with each other during fighting.

However, the problem is that if you spend all your time helping others and not reproducing yourself, then your nice, helpful genes don’t get a chance to spread. Sam Bowles’s argument is that one way to increase the chance of spreading altruistic genes is if you have some kind of reproductive equality, so that very few people are outreproducing others. So you don’t have one guy with fourteen wives and everybody else with none. Instead, everybody has more or less the same number and therefore more or less the same number of children.

Basically, the more children you have the more genes you spread. Genghis Khan appears to have had something like 16 million descendents. This is part of the puzzle of altruism. If you are so busy helping others, you don’t do anything for yourself.

In some ways, having children—protecting vulnerable little creatures—seems like the most baffling act of altruism.

Yes, although helping your own children doesn’t count as altruism because you’re perpetuating your own genes. Helping a total stranger’s children does count as altruism, and so adopting a child counts as altruism.

You wrote about Williams syndrome, a disorder that causes people to be inappropriately nice. What does that show about the genetic factors that govern altruism?

The fact that people with Williams Syndrome are missing part of a chromosome shows that there is a strong genetic component to being nice. The rest of us have two copies, so if we had one, presumably we’d all be too nice as well. What they seem to be missing is the break, so they seem unable to make a cunning assessment of, “Is this someone I should be nice to or not? Is this somebody I should be afraid of or not?” They seem very unafraid of strangers in ways that actually could be quite dangerous.

So does Williams syndrome imply that we have one set of genes that makes us really friendly and then something else in the genetic code that tempers that?

The genes that the Williams Syndrome people are missing are certainly involved in tempering friendliness. Now, we don’t know what stage they operate in. It may be that they operate very early in development. It may affect fundamental architecture, or it may be a more ongoing reaction.

It’s likely that the genes they are missing are not the only genes involved. Basically, human behavior has evolved to be very flexible. What is peculiar about Williams Syndrome is that people with Williams Syndrome are not able to be nearly as flexible and nuanced in their behavior as most people are.

What about conformity? How does that contribute to survival?

This is relevant to animals whose social circumstances can change. In an ant society, once you’ve been fed the right kind of substance, you’re either a worker or a queen, and it’s fairly hard to change from one or another. But in the case of most mammals, you might become the dominant or you might lose your position as dominant, so your behavior needs to be much more flexible. In a social group, fitting in is part of what has to happen. The more complex a society, the more important that is.

Among humans, though, the most striking instances of altruism often involve being totally non-conformist—for example, harboring a slave in the Underground Railroad.

One of the reasons those cases are so exceptional is because everybody else is conforming. Those are the exceptionally brave people. And taking a huge risk for an idea is something that is very uniquely human. As far as we know, animals do not have ideas in the sense that we have them. The abstract idea of right is something that may be derived from biology initially. But I think that to look at a situation and say, “The killing of this particular group is something I want to fight, even though I may die doing so”—that’s something quite unusual.

You mention in the article that cooperation often comes when creatures bond together in order to fight a common enemy. But some would argue that this mentality of “helping one’s own”—protecting the members of one’s own nation or religion or ethnicity at the expensive of everyone else—is the most destructive trait human beings have. Is there anything in genetics that suggests a tendency to be kind to everyone, not just members of one’s own family or tribe?

Well, I think the question is, can we create societies where those are the feelings the people have? Can we create a society that brings out the best aspects of human nature? Human nature is multifaceted. It has some extremely unpleasant components, undoubtedly. The question is, can we organize society to bring out the best bits? That doesn’t necessarily mean we can get rid of the bad bits all the time, but if we could bring out the best bits most of the time, I think we’d be doing pretty well.

Presented by

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

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