Video of the day:
Kindness is kindness only if it is meant to be so. Of course the brain is an evolved organ. But psychological altruism, the kind we talk about when we are thinking of human affairs, is entirely independent from biological altruism, or the kind that confers fitness on its bearer.
Oren Harman is a writer and a professor of the history of science at Bar Ilan University in Israel. He is best known as the author of several critically acclaimed scholarly works as well as works published by commercial publishers popularizing scientific ideas for a mass audience.
He is the author of The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, the moving tale of one man’s quest to crack the mystery of altruism, an evolutionary enigma that has haunted scientists since Darwin.
The mystery of kindness
Here’s the mystery. The mystery is how can it be if evolution is a process of survival that a behavior which reduces fitness, which lowers fitness survived overtime?
Why wasn’t it kicked out by natural selection?
Why do we find in basically everywhere we look in nature this sacrificial behavior? And what’s the connection between this sacrificial behavior we find in nature and altruism in human beings?
George Price and The Search For The Origins Of Kindness
As the thread of George Price’s life is woven into the tapestry of the search for the origins of altruism for the very first time, the colors of the pageant suddenly change in radiance and hue. For using Darwin’s great insight to penetrate the mystery of kindness, Price came to see what had eluded many before him:
Whereas others, in their hunt to fathom goodness, pitted different levels of organization of life, against one another–the gene conniving against the individual, the individual subverting the group, one group fighting doggedly against another–this lonely outsider understood that they would all have to be part of a single equation. It was a dramatic flash–a penetration that would forever change our view of the evolution of life.
Unknown, untrained, in a foreign country, dejected and alone, he had caught a glimpse of the great canvas of natural selection and seen its splendor and broadness. And, writing the elegant equation, he literally came out off the street, anonymous, to present it to the world.
Does true selfless altruism exist?
If George Price’s mathematics helped penetrate the origins of altruism deeper than ever before, his life itself was an attempt to answer its most burdersome and mystifying riddle. The level at which selection operates is a technical issue but bears heavily on a fundamental conundrum:
If altruism evolved over time in nature, it surely must have served some utilitarian purpose, and if it serves an ulterior purpose it is never what it seems. Part of some natural metric, the purity of selflessness is undermined by the scourge of self-interest: What looks like a sacrifice may in fact be the road to personal gain.
And so when it come to us, a dreaded question arises:
Beneath its evolutionary veneer, and despite the refinements of culture, does true selfless altruism exist? It’s a question every human since Adam and Eve has sought desperately to answer.