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.

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.

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.