Selfish Genes and Altruistic Animals

Often in discussions of the evolution of complex behaviour, I’ve come across a certain set-up: evolution naturally, ‘without effort’, produces egoistic creatures, and then only in response to certain particular selection pressures, and through certain particular mechanisms, does it produce altruism.

That is, people often seem to assume that the ‘problem’ or ‘challenge’ for evolution is how to limit egoism and allow altruism. Or conversely, that’s the ‘problem’ or ‘challenge’ for people trying to understand and explain the evolution of complex behaviour.

I’d like to suggest that this is actually the opposite of the truth: the problem is how to make naturally altruistic creatures behave egoistically.

(Obviously a lot of this whole way of framing things is scientifically quite dubious and anthropomorphises evolution a bit, but let’s set that aside. Let’s also note that this is not an exercise in ‘evolutionary psychology’, which many people have strong opinions on, since I don’t want to draw any conclusions regarding present day matters from speculations (and these are, of course, just speculations) about the distant past)

Now of course, a lot of behaviour, and for many animals most behaviour probably, is neither altruistic nor egoistic, because there’s no idea of self or another-self involved. If I’m primed to run away from loud noises, I run away from loud noises without it even occurring to me to put myself in the loud noise’s position.

But clearly at some point there emerged a capacity to understand that others might have mental lives but like our own but different. Maybe this didn’t happen until Homo sapiens, or maybe earlier on in Homo. Maybe it was Australopithecus, or maybe it was a baboon, or a whale, or a bird, or whatever. Let’s think in terms of monkeys for the sake of argument (protip: this sentence is rarely ill-advised in any setting).

So what I’m suggesting is that once the possibility of altruism is there, the actuality is the natural result. Once an animal can put itself in the position of another animal, its behaviour is likely to show the effects. Once you understand that the other monkey is hungry, and this is like when you are hungry, you’ve already got a motivation to share some of your food.

The development of that understanding may well not have been for any purpose to do with motivation. It may just have been cognitively useful – interpreting other animals’ behaviour might just be so useful that we evolved to link up how we feel and how they feel, just for prediction processes, so we know what they’re going to do next.

But the simplest way to do this is just to have some set-up where you feel something like pain when you see a monkey in pain. And since pain is unpleasant (well, usually) we have already, by this simple expedient, given you a motive to avoid the other monkey being in pain.

In short, I think that once an animal has evolved to be able to understand others (which is very useful), they’ve already been made into an animal that cares about others.

And this is actually quite problematic from an evolutionary point of view, because empathy ranges much more widely than genetic closeness. Most obviously, a predator that feels empathy for its prey is liable to be at a disadvantage.

So what’s actually more interesting to study isn’t how altruism can be explained, but rather how it can and has been contained. What are the processes and the dispositions, the mechanisms and the habits, through which an organism is constructed from birth to feel empathy only in certain cases, and to suppress it in others?

Interestingly, of course, we can observe some obvious features of how this works, and one is that certain perceived features of an organism prompt certain patterns of feeling, certain ‘schemas’. For instance, there’s a set of features that we process as ‘cute’ (big eyes, big head, rounded shape, etc.) and which elicit a certain style of empathy, while others that we process as ‘scary’ (narrowed eyes, visible teeth, loud or deep noises, etc.) which elicit defensive and hostile feelings and inhibit empathy.

One of the most interesting sources of information here I think would be cases where these schemas get, so to speak, short-circuited by abnormal environments – like when a cat who would, normally, see a human as a threatening larger animal and a guinea pig as prey is instead taught to see the human as a sort of parent figure and the guinea pig as a fellow cat.

At this point obviously matters start to merge back into the ‘not-properly-altruistic-or-egoistic’ behaviour I mentioned at the start, where no concept of other minds is involved, just a reaction to perceived cues (but they’re not the same – we can potentially feel empathy for even a hideous or frightening creature, especially if we can connect some aspect of how we feel to its hideousness). So it’s hard to tell what’s going on in any particular animal or species, and I’m trying to avoid committing myself to any specifics.

Anyway, I don’t suppose that this post can be very rigourous or can change the mind of anyone who’s already got a fixed opinion. I just felt like the ‘egoism is default, altruism requires something special’ approach was so common, it would be useful to just throw out an alternative.

2 Responses to “Selfish Genes and Altruistic Animals”

  1. Db0 Says:

    Let’s think in terms of monkeys for the sake of argument

    I giggled 🙂

  2. missivesfrommarx Says:


    BTW, do you have an email address where I could send you a note?

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