Evolutionary biology is currently enjoying a period of high public prestige. At the moment, nature’s authority is being asserted over the nature of our own authority: biological explanations for what we do and why, and what we can or cannot do, and should or should not do, and why, are ascendant over answers drawn from other dimensions of human knowledge and experience.
But the permeability of the borders between biological questions, especially those touching on human nature, and the questions of the culture at large, has often kept these scientific explanations from the appearance of the scientific ideal of disinterestedness, as scientists have played out in their arena the same disputes that roil society at large. To elucidate the background of claims about human selfishness and selflessness is imperative both to enrich our understanding of the history of biology and human society and to provide context for current intellectual debates on the subject, both within biology and in our larger culture.
Altruism has become a transparent concept, taken for granted, disguising its remarkably late historical origins in the nineteenth century. It was brought into common currency in the popular writings of Herbert Spencer, who made the evolution of altruism the driving motor of his view of the progressive biological and social evolution of human beings. The term was popular, even faddish, around the turn of the twentieth century, not just in the application of evolutionary ideas to the evolution of human society but also in literature, religion, and reformist political movements. But by the 1930s, the word was largely obsolete, undone by its own popularity.
It was only in the late 1960s and in the 1970s that “altruism” revived in the theoretical evolutionary biology of WD Hamilton to be—as EO Wilson called it—“the central theoretical problem of sociobiology,” which it has uncomfortably remained ever since. The altruism at the center of sociobiology, however, in the form of “kin selection” or “inclusive fitness,” has little in common with Spencer’s altruism but the name.
While Spencer envisioned altruism as an ecstatic, active extension of the faculty of empathy, a force that drove human evolution toward increased moral, intellectual, and physical perfection, Hamiltonian altruism is rather the action of a rationally-directed selfishness. Biologists and others have been struggling since the 1960s with the implications of this very non-altruistic “altruism,” for evolution and for ourselves.
This project asked: What now is “real” altruism, whether in a technical biological or in a vernacular sense: is it self-sacrifice on behalf of close kin? (Wilson has variously called this both “hard-core” and “technically not even” altruism). Is it the promotion of “the advantages of other members of the species not its direct descendants at the expense of its own,” as population geneticist WD Hamilton formulated it in 1963? Can altruism cross species lines in an evolutionarily meaningful way? How are questions of quantitative altruism, by any of these definitions, connected to the evolution of morality? Does individual perception of the meaning or context of acts matter at all, as primatologist Frans de Waal insists? Small wonder that biologist David Sloan Wilson and philosopher Elliott Sober have observed that “evolutionary biologists have so far contributed little but confusion” to definitions of the problem, for all their mathematizations and attempted theoretical apparatuses, and for all their desire (shared by Wilson and Sober) to extend their explanatory purview to human nature as well.
The biological, philosophical, religious, moral, and political debates about the meaning of altruism have varied by country and by period, by intersection with other intellectual and social movements—feminism, socialism—and by interaction with biological traditions outside of evolutionary theory, particularly psychology. The implications of all of these have reflected back into evolutionary theory itself, as evolutionary biologists have sometimes found their personal, scientific, and political conclusions at odds. Despite some scientists’ disavowals, too much is at stake for “altruism” ever to have become a merely technical, value-neutral term.