Altruism Probably Arose From Selfishness Say Researchers
January 24, 2013

Humanity’s Highest Virtue May Have Its Roots In Selfishness And Greed

Jedidiah Becker for — Your Universe Online

According to a new study in the latest edition of the journal Evolution, one of humanity´s noblest virtues may ironically have its origins in one of our most vile impulses.

The quest for the origin of altruism and self-sacrifice in human societies has long captivated the imagination of social scientists and anthropologists. Now, a team of researchers from Princeton University and the University of Arizona has suggested that altruistic rules in human societies may have first arisen when competing selfish individuals sought to exploit these very regulations to their own advantage.

In this view, say the researchers, altruism did not develop in reaction to the actions of selfish individuals. Instead, altruism may have actually been a strategy of rapacious individuals looking to grow their riches and consolidate power by eliminating their competitors. Over time, however, early societies adopted and institutionalized these more, making them a permanent feature of their ethical and penal codes in an attempt to protect the “greater good” of the community.

Past studies into the origins of altruism have traditionally looked to the altruists themselves as the source of this widespread social value. This approach runs into a seemingly insurmountable theoretical wall, however, when one poses the question: How did these early preachers of altruism institutionalize and enforce their ethical mandates if they themselves were selfless and powerless?

To slice through this Gordian knot, the authors of the recent report make the argument that it simply would have been much easier for altruism to arise from powerful individuals with selfish motives rather than from selfless but powerless individuals. Their study thus challenges traditional theories which hold that altruistic social arrangements somehow arose independently of selfish individuals and their power structures.

In the cleverly titled article “When Hawks Give Rise to Doves: The Evolution and Transition of Enforcement Strategies,”authors Omar Eldakar and Andrew Gallup explain that “just as altruists [wanted] to limit selfishness in the population, so [did] the selfish individuals themselves.”

In order to test their idea, the research team created a sim­u­la­tion model to gauge how a com­mu­nity might have reacted to sys­tems built on altru­is­tic pun­ish­ment verses ones built around selfish-on-selfish pun­ish­ment. Their results corroborated their hunch by indicating that it would have indeed been easier for altruism to take root if it were enforced by powerful selfish individuals rather than by altruists themselves.

The key to understanding this, they say, lies in the problem of enforcing altruistic rules with punishment. While punishment would have been an effective way to curb selfishness in early communities, it came at a price. The authors noted that the enforcement of altru­ism requires a lot of resources from the community, including time, physical resources, high levels of cooperation and group solidarity, and the risk that the punished individual could seek revenge against their punishers.

“When punishment evolves amongst altruists, the double costs of exploitation from cheaters and punishment make the evolution of punishment problematic,” they explain. Therefore, the enforcement of altruism codes “can more readily invade selfish populations when associated with selfishness, whereas altruistic punishers cannot.”

The end result of these arrange­ments, the researchers believe, would have been a general sense of order and equal­ity that the community even­tu­ally came to adopt voluntarily, thus giv­ing rise to institutionalized social altruism. As the authors ironically conclude, “from chaotic beginnings, a little hypocrisy may go a long way in the evolution and maintenance of altruism.”