The evolution of selflessness

6 mins read

In a grave in St Pancras Cemetery in Greater London, lies American geneticist George Price. A man who wasn’t originally given the recognition he deserved but whose lifework recently caught public interest.

The opinions on the implications of his discoveries are somewhat differing, perhaps due to the complex nature of his findings, that several scientists have admitted not to fully grasp. Some think he demonstrated that selflessness doesn’t exist, others believe the opposite, but one thing is certain: his contribution to our comprehension of evolutionary biology is undeniable.

The matter of altruism, or ‘selflessness’ to use a possibly more familiar term, has long been of interest in both the biological and social sciences. Why do people, like firefighters and rescuers, risk their lives for complete strangers? Why did professor Librescu sacrifice his life, taking five bullets in order to save his students after a deranged teenager started opening fire at his school? Why would Father Maximilian Kolbe volunteer to die in place of a complete stranger in Auschwitz?

Scottish philosopher David Hume, one of the greatest humanists of all time, argued in his work A Treatise of Human Nature (1738-40) that human nature is governed by sentiment and passion rather than reason, famously declaring that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Most scientists would beg to differ.

Altruism is not only a human quality, it is very frequent in nature. Among Bonobos (chimpanzees) for example, who have been observed helping injured or handicapped bonobos. Or dolphins, who aid sick or injured animals, swimming under them for hours and pushing them to the surface so they can breathe. Unlike the philosophical concept of altruism (in which intentions matter the most), biological altruism is defined by the consequences of an action: if an organism acts in such a way that its behaviour decreases its fitness while increasing that of another, it is an altruist. 


The mystery of biological altruism raises several questions. If evolution is a process of survival of the fittest, and altruism is a kind of behavior that reduces adaptation, why do we find altruistic actions everywhere in nature? How did selflessness “overcome” natural selection, becoming an integral part of human nature? In other words, how can natural selection favour behaviours that are detrimental to the interests of the individual? This was the paradox that tormented Price: the evolution of altruism was impossible, yet clearly it had evolved.

And finally, the existential philosophical implication: are we (humanity) good or bad?

Thomas Henry Huxley, a Darwinian, replied using the notion that humankind gave itself moral values to protect itself from a wild and amoral nature. In his work The Selfish Gene (1976), Richard Dawkins described human beings as “survival machines, robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes”. Evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton justified altruistic behaviour with the metrics of inclusive fitness; in other words, degree of kinship. This is the idea that individuals are more likely to behave in an altruistic manner in order to enable survival of their relatives, for their genes to be passed on.

All these explanations are based on the logic of egoism, of selfishness, reaching the conclusion that altruism is just a form of indirect egoism. That selflessness is actually selfishness in disguise. However, Price was looking for pure, disinterested altruism: if it could be explained in mathematical terms, then it was not true altruism. 

Price’s equation outlines how in a population of reproducing individuals, any trait (z) that increases fitness (w) will be more frequent among the population with each new generation; if a trait decreases fitness, it will diminish. Used to describe the evolution of a population through time, the equation is applicable to any set of entities that are able to generate new entities, even in “abstract” terms with computers. This is known to be the best evolutionary and mathematical representation of altruism, as it quantifies the adaptation effects that selection has on biological populations over time, including social adaptations.

Returning to Price’s quest for pure selflessness, he decided to experiment the possibility of absolute altruism on himself, giving away his possessions to the homeless, and eventually becoming one of them. Unable to scientifically find a justification for altruism, Price had a profound religious conversion and sadly took his own life in 1975.

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Film and Media & Marketing student at the University of Stirling

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