Citizen Action Monitor

Proof of genetically inherited altruistic behaviour means we can move beyond the selfish gene

Societies structured to cultivate long-term vision, altruism, and self-transcending behaviours, while penalizing selfish behaviours, will flourish.

No 2091 Posted by fw, November 5, 2017

To access all other synopses from Prosperity without Growth, click on the Tab titled “Prosperity without Growth” — Links to All Posts in the top left margin of the Home page. 

In Section 5, Chapter 7, titled “The evolution of selfishness,” Tim Jackson traced the origins of selfish human behaviour to three sources: two 18th century works – the first, a poem, the second, a treatise on economics — and the third, On the Origin of Species, the 19th century foundation of evolutionary biology.

Jackson stressed that “Economics has continued to ‘borrow’ credibility for the centrality of self-interest from the theory of evolution ever since.”

In his opening to this sixth and final section of Chapter 8, Jackson declares: “Evolutionary explanations of behaviour are by no means confined to the idea that human beings are inherently selfish. The existence of genuinely altruistic behaviour is a fact of biology.”

He then proceeds to review the significance of three seminal contributions to evolutionary biology and one to evolutionary psychology. Taken together, we have gained this powerful insight: societies structured to cultivate long-term vision, altruism, and self-transcending behaviours, while concurrently penalizing selfish behaviours, will flourish.

A lingering question remains: Will the ruling class forestall the transition to an economy that cultivates flourishing within ecological limits ?

Tim Jackson is a British ecological economist and professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey.

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Beyond the selfish gene, a synopsis, from Chapter 7, “Flourishing — Within Limits” of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity without Growth, Routledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

In his opening to Section 6, Jackson declares: “Evolutionary explanations of behaviour are by no means confined to the idea that human beings are inherently selfish. The existence of genuinely altruistic behaviour is a fact of biology.”

He cites three landmark works that have led to this advanced understanding of evolutionary biology:

In 1963, British evolutionary biologist William Hamilton’s theoretical work proposing that “selection operated not at the level of the individual but at the level of the gene, [providing] a mechanism for the evolution of altruism.”

In 1975, the American biologist E. O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology, argued that the unit of selection is the gene, and that all animal behaviour, including that of humans, is in part the product of genetic inheritance.

In 1976, English evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, building on Hamilton’s work, published The Selfish Gene, introduced the influential concept that the effects of a gene are not necessarily limited to an organism’s body, but can reach into the environment.

Regarding the significance of these seminal contributions to evolutionary biology, Jackson writes:

“Evolution doesn’t preclude moral, social and altruistic behaviours. On the contrary, social behaviours evolved in humans precisely because they offer selective advantages to the species. … Selfishness clearly exists. But so, undeniably, does altruism. Both kinds of behaviours are genetically possible in us. Both had evolutionary advantages to our species over long periods of time. Selfishness served us well under conditions of fight or flight. But altruism was fundamental to our evolution as social beings.”

But there’s more.

Evolutionary psychology posits a tension between selfishness and empathy: individual selfishness serves us well in enhancing our personal survival; altruism is essential for our flourishing in social groups.

The research of social psychologist Shalom Schwartz offers us an important evolutionary account for this dissidence with his “evolutionary map of the human heart”, which reveals the crux of a conflict when we are faced with a choice between fulfilling our selfish desires or acting altruistically for the common good.

What we’ve created in consumer capitalism is an economy which privileges, and systematically encourages, one specific segment of the evolutionary map – Novelty. In effect, the capitalist economy “is best served by selfish, novelty-seeking behaviour. Without the self-serving hedonist lurking within us, the economy itself is in danger of collapsing.

The capitalist society is structured with technologies, institutions and social norms that reward self-enhancement and novelty; consequently, selfish, sensation-seeking social behaviours prevail over more conservative, altruistic ones.

On the other hand, societies structured to cultivate long-term vision, altruism, and self-transcending behaviours, while penalizing selfish behaviours, will flourish.

Each society strikes this balance between altruism and selfishness (and between novelty and tradition) in different places,” asserts Jackson. “And where this balance is struck depends crucially on social structure. Social structures can change and can be changed. They are amenable to policy. And all the evidence suggests that the time is ripe for such changes, because the existing structures are poorly aligned with human interests and values.

And with those words, Jackson ends Section 6, “Beyond the selfish gene.” 

But he continues with a brief summary of main points made in Chapter 7:

Flourishing through material success threatens prospects for a shared prosperity;

Our best option is an economy that cultivates flourishing within ecological limits;

Flourishing within ecological limits demands: 1) increased emphasis on opportunities for meaningful social participation; and 2) reduced structural incentivization of “unproductive status competition”;

Jackson lists the primary benefits flowing from these improvements:

  • a less materialistic society will be a happier one;
  • a more equal society will be a less anxious one; and
  • greater attention to community and to participation in the life of society will reduce the loneliness and anomie that has undermined wellbeing in the consumer economy.”

Jackson concludes:

Above all, it’s vital to understand that this vision of a different society, a different economics, is categorically not some kind of heroic demand to ‘change human nature’. Neither is it about curtailing human possibilities. Rather it’s about allowing ourselves the freedom to become fully human. It’s about recognizing the depth and breadth of the human soul. And it’s about building an economics to reflect that vision.”

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