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19 Apr 2012

Cooperation vs. Self-interest (Pt 7): Altruistic Dominance

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

Darwin considered altruism the biggest threat to his theory of survival of the fittest.

We sometimes hear, “Nice guys finish last.” However, in genetics altruism creates a dilemma because it exists – and not just in humans. The question is why. Even Darwin considered it a challenge to his theory of natural selection. Why would any creature help another at a steep personal cost?

The article, “Kin and Kind,” written by Jonah Lehrer in the March 5, 2012 edition of The New Yorker, investigates 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, insects displaying an extreme form of altruism called “eusociality” tend to dominate the insect world over their self-interested brethren.

E.O.Wilson, a main proponent of altruism as a positive contributor in evolution summarizes it this way:

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

If we look at the Napoleonic era and the rise of the nation state, we find that the demise of mercenary (self-interested) armies began when citizen (altruistic) armies, cemented by patriotic and nationalistic emotions arrived on the scene. However, the reason why we don’t see more altruism in nature and our everyday lives is that a cohesive group must exist first. Again, context matters; encouraging self-interest will yield a self-interested culture, encouraging altruism will yield an altruistic one.

Of course, this prompts the question: Can a company built upon self-interested incentives triumph over a company with a cohesive, altruistic culture? Evolution suggests it won’t. Of course, that doesn’t mean a few self-interested people inside the altruistic cultures won’t try to take advantage of the others. Perhaps they are there to really test how cohesive and altruistic the company is?

Nevertheless, it seems that evolution could really be on the side of the nice guys.


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

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