The story of evolution, we have been told, is the story of the survival of the fittest. The strong eat the weak. The creatures that adapt to the environment pass on their selfish genes. Those that do not become extinct.
In this telling, we humans are like all other animals - deeply and thoroughly selfish. We spend our time trying to maximize our outcomes - competing for status, wealth and mating opportunities. Behavior that seems altruistic is really self-interest in disguise. Charity and fellowship are the cultural drapery atop the iron logic of nature.
All this is partially true, of course. Yet every day, it seems, a book crosses my desk, emphasizing a different side of the story. These are books about sympathy, empathy, cooperation and collaboration, written by scientists, evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists and others. It seems there's been a shift among those who study this ground, yielding a more nuanced, and often gentler picture of our nature.
The most modest of these is SuperCooperators by Martin Nowak with Roger Highfield. Nowak uses higher math to demonstrate that "cooperation and competition are forever entwined in a tight embrace."
In pursuing our self-interested goals, we often have an incentive to repay kindness with kindness, so others will do us favors when we're in need. We have an incentive to establish a reputation for niceness, so people will want to work with us. We have an incentive to work in teams, even against our short-term self-interest because cohesive groups thrive. Cooperation is as central to evolution as mutation and selection, Nowak argues.
But much of the new work moves beyond incentives, narrowly understood. Michael Tomasello, the author of Why We Cooperate, devised a series of tests that he could give to chimps and toddlers in nearly identical form. He found that at an astonishingly early age kids begin to help others, and to share information, in ways that adult chimps hardly ever do.
An infant of 12 months will inform others about something by pointing. Chimpanzees and other apes do not helpfully inform each other about things. Infants share food readily with strangers. Chimpanzees rarely even offer food to their own offspring. If a 14-month-old child sees an adult having difficulty - like being unable to open a door because her hands are full - the child will try to help.
Tomasello's point is that the human mind veered away from that of the other primates. We are born ready to cooperate, and then we build cultures to magnify this trait.
In Born to Be Good, Dacher Keltner describes the work he and others are doing on the mechanisms of empathy and connection, involving things like smiles, blushes, laughter and touch. When friends laugh together, their laughs start out as separate vocalizations, but they merge and become intertwined sounds. It now seems as though laughter evolved millions of years ago, long before vowels and consonants, as a mechanism to build cooperation. It is one of the many tools in our inborn toolbox of collaboration.
In one essay, Keltner cites the work of the Emory University neuroscientists James Rilling and Gregory Berns. They found that the act of helping another person triggers activity in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate cortex regions of the brain, the parts involved in pleasure and reward. That is, serving others may produce the same sort of pleasure as gratifying a personal desire.
In his book, The Righteous Mind, to be published early next year, Jonathan Haidt joins Edward O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson and others who argue that natural selection takes place not only when individuals compete with other individuals, but also when groups compete with other groups. Both competitions are examples of the survival of the fittest, but when groups compete, it's the cohesive, cooperative, internally altruistic groups that win and pass on their genes. The idea of "group selection" was heresy a few years ago, but there is momentum behind it now.
Human beings, Haidt argues, are "the giraffes of altruism." Just as giraffes got long necks to help them survive, humans developed moral minds that help them and their groups succeed. Humans build moral communities out of shared norms, habits, emotions and gods, and then will fight and even sometimes die to defend their communities.
Different interpretations of evolution produce different ways of analyzing the world. The selfish-competitor model fostered the utility-maximizing model that is so prevalent in the social sciences, particularly economics. The new, more cooperative view will complicate all that.
But the big upshot is this: For decades, people tried to devise a rigorous "scientific" system to analyze behavior that would be divorced from morality. But if cooperation permeates our nature, then so does morality, and there is no escaping ethics, emotion and religion in our quest to understand who we are and how we got this way.
© 2011 New York Times News Service