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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  • Sandy

    For some, altruism is a way of giving back, for other's it may be a reason to find forgiveness from the past. Folks need to build their resume, college app, or look good to others. For me, volunteerism is an interest. I love to paint, to teach, to play with my granddaughter, to make someone smile and I love doing good. And, when something or someone responds to my influence, It just plain makes me feel good!

  • Lisa A Tignor

    Altruism isn't the only reason to give of your time/money. You may want to try a new career path but have skills to learn. Volunteering is a great way to expand your skills. Volunteering can also help build a resume, making you more employable. Maybe you really like movies and wish there was a place in your community to see foreign films, so you lend your time to a film festival. Or maybe you want to get to know that cute guy who doles out dinners at the shelter. All of these possibilities might motivate me, but are any of them altruistic?

  • gchew

    Let's keep the truth simple.  Since God made humans in His image (Genesis 1), and God's nature is to give, it is natural that we want to give and do things for people.

  • Hia Phua

    "Altruism" is a red herring and subject to semantic debate. As someone below suggests, it boils down more broadly to our motivation to give to others, whether financially or in time and energy. My experience is that it's some combination (that varies by individual) of ego, compassion, and desire for community. Giving can make us feel good about ourselves. We might give because we feel for the suffering of another person/animal. And/or, we give because we want to feel a sense of belonging to a particular community that comes with shared purpose or values. This last one can be attributed to the biological social/tribal imperative, partly ego driven (us vs them, I know I'm on the right team), also a survival instinct that having a community can provide protection, whether physical or psychological. In this context, giving is a way of "paying your dues" into membership. I find that trying to convince someone to "make a difference" is easiest when you can figure out which combination of motivators will be most compelling for this particular individual (or group), or ensure you have all your bases covered.

  • Tobi Johnson

    My sense is that giving has more to do with how we feel when we give (increasing dopamine productions, etc.) and how giving helps align our actions with ideal we set for ourselves about the person we feel we should be (think about how powerful social proof can be).  There also is surely something in our "primitive" brains that supports altruism.  After all, brain science is showing us that it is actually this brain (the emotional one) that makes our decisions for least initially.  It might also be interesting to take a look at what inspires initial commitment to a cause versus what sustains it over time -- they may be different animals altogether.

  • Adriana Galue

    Dawkins coined the term "selfish gene" as a mean
    of expressing the gene-centered view of evolution.  From this view, it is implicit that the more two individuals
    are genetically related, the more sense it makes for them to behave altruistically
    with each other.

    When Dawkins describes
    genes as "selfish by nature", he doesn’t really imply that genes are
    focused on a lack of altruism. What he means by “selfish”, is that the genes
    that get passed on, are the ones whose consequences serve their own implicit
    interest - as it is in the gene’s interest to be further replicated -
    at a gene’s behavior is completely different than looking at the larger
    organism level (us humans). Altruism at these two levels can’t really be compared or

  • Ally

    I think it's perfectly natural for us to want to help each other. And research on "mirror neurons" would suggest we are actually hardwired to do so. I believe Darwin has been largely misinterpreted, and that we've had this story of "survival of the fittest" pounded into us from a very early age. Then a few people hurt us in some way or another, and we start to believe it's true, that we are against each other. But I think naturally we are for each other. I know for sure, the more energy and time I spend trying to help other people, the happier and more fulfilled I feel. Hope they come up with a mathematical equation for that ;-)

  • servantofchaos

    It's not just about altruism but also about motivation. Dan Pink's explanation - that we are motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose - explains this more cohesively than the scientific formula. The question really is personal balance. Perhaps understanding our own A+M+P helps us to understand our own generosity and in the generosity we find in others.

  • deniseinm

    I knew I would not make it in the academic world because I cannot relate altruism to a mathematical equation! I think I can speak for many in being very happy that Greg Baldwin chose to be our CEO instead of a biologist.

  • Amy J.

    The more I can let go of my ego, the more altruistic I am and vice versus. I try to check my ego - because usually if it get's in the way, I become very selfish....and I don't like that - really.