Rethinking The Science Of Generosity

How we give back, and for what reason, has long baffled scientists. Will a better understanding help us activate more people to altruism?

Last week, the legendary biologist E. O. Wilson shook the world of science with a new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, which challenges the established understanding of evolution and with it the accepted explanation of altruism. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post have all joined the conversation and opened up a lively debate on human nature and science’s ongoing effort to make sense of the urge to be helpful.

This post is part of a series on the future of service in America, in conjunction with Catchafire.

Since Darwin, science and altruism have not had a particularly warm relationship. The theory of evolution is about natural selection, survival, and the chilly math of genetics. It assumes that all creatures compete, the fittest survive, and their genes are passed on to further the cycle.

Reconciling this view of the world with kindness and cooperation has never been an easy task for science, and so the fertile territory of trying to understand why so many of us choose to serve others has been ceded to the moralists. But in his new book Wilson is giving the debate a fresh start and it is making some of his colleagues very uncomfortable.

Here is what’s at stake and why the outcome of the debate is so important. Over the last 40 years, academics have adopted a very narrow view of altruism based on the theory that individuals only act selflessly in nature in order to protect the longevity and reproductive capacity of other family members. Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene is perhaps the best known articulation of the theory of kin selection.

And there’s even an equation, rB > C, that explains that an individual will act selflessly when the biological benefit (B) to a relative (r) is greater than the cost to the individual (C). It is not exactly "love thy neighbor," but it is the best science has been able to come up with. In his new book, Wilson, previously a staunch advocate of the theory of kin selection, is recanting on the grounds it doesn’t fully explain what is actually happening in the real world. His new theory moves away from genetic relationships and focuses instead on the development of cooperative groups and the biological advantage they have over less cooperative groups.

I’ll confess: I’m sympathetic to this view. As the president of the Internet’s largest volunteer engagement network, I have a vested interest in the future of altruism, and it is difficult for me to believe that the millions of people who searched our network last year to find an opportunity to be helpful did it because of a biological imperative to advance the genetic pool of their relatives. I’m not a trained evolutionary biologist, but I think most of us have something more in mind.

As more resources are poured into generating social good by individuals, organizations, companies, and government, how we think about why people choose to make a difference is enormously important. It guides how we talk about giving back, the programs and infrastructure we put in place to facilitate it, and how we invite audiences to be part of these activities.

For example, the question of why people give is at the heart of whether it’s even possible to convince someone to make a difference who doesn’t already want to. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of emails in the morning explaining how foolish I am, but I think Wilson is right to move on from rB > C. Suffice it to say that there is more kindness and generosity in nature than we have been able to explain. Virtue and vice are at the center of the human condition and we still don’t really understand why some people choose one over the other.

It is time to dig a little deeper and challenge the assumption that altruism is an evolutionary sideshow. Wilson seems to think there is more to be learned here, and I can think of nothing more important to the future of service than joining him in the search. What do you think? Are we hopelessly selfish? Stubbornly selfless? Or something in between? Join the conversation.

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