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19 Apr 2012

How Altruism in Groups Plays Out Against Self-interest

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Cooperation vs. Self-interest

In genetics altruism creates a dilemma. Darwin even considered it a challenge to his theory of natural selection where self-interest seems to prevail. Yet, altruism exists and not just in humans. It’s here that looking at how altruism in groups plays out against self-interest provides answers.

Altruism in Groups of Animals

Looking at altruism in groups explains how it altruism fits into Darwism.

Altruism in groups helps to answer why it exists and how it can dominate self-interest.

The article, “Kin and Kind,” written by Jonah Lehrer in the March 5, 2012 edition of The New Yorker, looks at altruism and its role in evolution. Whether its bats, bees, birds, ants or humans, the presence of altruism in these species suggests that kindness can’t be a losing strategy.

In fact, some insects display an extreme form of altruism in groups called “eusociality.” In the insect world, they do better than self-interested groups. Thus, E.O.Wilson, a main proponent of altruism summarizes the role of altruism in groups this way:

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.

Altruism in Groups of Humans

If we look at the Napoleonic era and the rise of the nation state, we find the demise of mercenary (self-interested) armies. It’s at this time that citizen (altruistic) armies, cemented by patriotic and nationalistic emotions arrived on the scene.

Still, it’s hard to see altruism in our everyday lives let alone nature. That’s because before altruism in groups can thrive, the group must be cohesive. In short, context matters. Encouraging self-interest will yield a self-interested culture. Encouraging altruism will yield an altruistic one.

Can a company with an altruistic culture out do one with a self-interested one? Evolution says it can. On the other hand, it also says that a few self-interested people could do well in an altruistic culture. They would take advantage of others.

In this case then, perhaps the self-interested are there to test really how cohesive and altruistic the company is? They might even be part of the natural life-cycle bringing about the group’s death. Nevertheless, it seems if humans are up to the task of being altruistic, evolution will be on their side.


Series Navigation<< Cooperation vs. Self-interest (Pt 5): Humans vs. Apes<< Cooperation vs. Self-interest (Pt 6): Incentives & Rats

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