Selfishness and altruism

A lot of our current problems can be solved if we could just overcome selfishness. For example, the richest 1% population own more than half of the total human wealth. They could end world poverty by donating a meager 1% of their wealth. Sounds like a simple solution? It’s not. There are reasons why we aren’t collectively capable of even such a tiny act of altruism under normal circumstances. It goes against our basic genetic programming.

In this article, I would like to establish the following:

  1. Selfishness is an integral part of human nature
  2. Humans are capable of altruism, but only under certain conditions

The ideas I’ll present are scientific in nature and should not be confused with any ethical standpoint (i.e. they describe what is rather than what ought to be).

Understanding selfishness

Let’s start by discarding the idea that selfishness is a social construct. Society doesn’t teach us to be selfish. Selfishness runs much deeper; it is a fundamental property of all living things. This is a well established scientific theory and must be taken into account in every educated discourse on human behavior.

I will briefly explain the process of natural selection and it will become apparent why selfishness is naturally selected by definition.

Natural selection – an overview

Every time an organism reproduces, it passes on copies of its genes to its offsprings. But the process of copying isn’t 100% accurate and leads to imperfections in the offspring’s genes, known as mutations. Mutations are completely random. Sometimes, purely by luck, a mutation may increase the offspring’s ability to reproduce. At other times, it may leave the offspring worse off.

The figure below demonstrates the phenomenon. The yellow organisms are capable of producing 3 offsprings. Lucky mutations result in a green organism which is capable of producing 5 offsprings. unlucky mutations result in a red organism which is capable of producing only 1 offspring. Neutral mutations result in no change.

By the 4th generation, 71.4% of the organisms are green, 25.7% are yellow and 2.9% are red. The greens will keep growing in percentage and take up all available resources.

The green organisms got naturally selected even though red, yellow and green mutations happened with equal probabilities (i.e. randomly). This emergence of a sense of ‘direction’ out of pure randomness eventually gives rise to complex life forms such as ourselves. (A simple and elegant concept that rendered ‘intelligent design’ unnecessary!)

Inevitable selfishness

Say Pete is a simple organism who lives in a group. He isn’t complex enough to comprehend the concept of selfishness. But let’s assume a random mutation has given him a “selfish gene” – a gene that develops the tendency in him to unconsciously serve his own needs over those of his fellow group members. Every time the group finds some food, Pete takes a larger share than others. This makes Pete healthier and less likely to starve, which in turn gives him the ability to produce more offspring. The self-serving bias makes Pete a green organism (better at reproduction).

Moving to the next generation, Pete’s offsprings all carry copies of his “selfish gene”. Since Pete reproduced more than his group-mates, the group now has a higher percentage of individuals that carry the selfish gene. It should be evident at this point that the selfish gene is being naturally selected. Selfless individuals will be outcompeted and will die out over generations.

All this happened at very rudimentary stages of evolution. Millions of years of evolution later, selfishness is deep-rooted in the genes of every existing living being. (For more details on this concept read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.)

Conditional altruism

But what about our altruistic actions, you may ask? How can we explain those if we are truly selfish? This is where the difference between the human and the gene gets highlighted. The selfishness that I talked about is a trait of the gene.

To understand altruistic human behavior it is useful to imagine the gene as a puppet master that controls the actions of its host humans using invisible strings. The gene is immortal as it ensures an everlasting supply of new human bodies for itself.

Let’s say gene-A lives inside a woman. Gene-A needs the woman to keep surviving and hence instructs her to look out for herself. This is a normal scenario where she would put her needs over others’. When the woman’s body is fertile, the gene pulls her strings and instructs her to have sex.

The woman gives birth to a child. Now gene-A lives inside both the woman and the child, i.e. it has gained control over two humans. The child has the potential to live longer and is likely to reproduce if it reaches adulthood. Therefore gene-A decides to prioritize the child from now on. It pulls the child’s strings to behave selfishly. It pulls the mother’s strings and makes her sacrifice her resources for the well-being of the child. Gene-A can even make her sacrifice her life for the child if required.


The mother’s behavior is a form of altruism. She puts her child above herself. Her actions resulted from the selfishness of gene-A whose only aim is to be immortal. Thus, humans behave altruistically when it suits the selfish interests of the gene.

The most crucial insight we get here is that altruism comes naturally when we share genes. Intra-family altruism is common. Soldiers sacrifice their lives for their country (or tribe) since a foreign invasion may wipe out all copies of their genes that are present in their family and relatives.

The ‘puppet-master gene’ is just a metaphor. Genes aren’t actually conscious; they don’t actually analyze situations before making us behave the way they want. But through mere natural selection, they have programmed us to feel emotions such as love, empathy, and patriotism that get triggered when acts of altruism are needed to increase the chances of their survival. In absence of these emotions, we stay our ordinary selfish selves.


Our capacity of altruism is limited by the level of genetic relatedness. The average human’s altruistic capacity towards others goes as follows:

family > local community > country >  all humans > other species.

I’ll pick the two extremes just to draw a contrast: family and other species. A slight inconvenience to a family member concerns us, while we fund the slavery, rape, and murder of several non-human species.

Appeals for mass-scale love and empathy mostly fail. Collectivistic ideologies, that want us to work towards the benefit of everyone instead of ourselves, fail for the same reasons – they go against the interests of the selfish gene.

Some speculation:

Can we devise ways to trigger collectivistic behavior in ourselves even in the absence of genetic relatedness? I suspect that we do it already but with unwanted side-effects.

Religion, for example, is a social construct that creates a strong sense of belonging to a group, almost like a family. This “fools” our programming into behaving as if the people from the same religion are genetically related even though they aren’t necessarily so. A religious person is likely to spend his/her hard-earned money to serve the religion or the people associated with it.

We can also behave in a collectivistic way if we expect greater rewards in return (thus incorporating collectivism into selfishness). The reward of citizenship can make an American risk his life for the country even if he is a first-generation immigrant because he expects his kin to share the wealth of America in the future.

Thus, to manipulate ourselves into large-scale collectivistic behavior we may need to create either illusions or really strong incentives. Regimes that have efficiently implemented collectivistic ideologies (such as socialism and communism) have always supplemented their policies with ultra-nationalism (a mix of illusions and rewards). History gives us some evidence of how that goes: the nationalist socialists (the Nazis) and the nationalist communists (the USSR). Both very efficient and very inhumane.



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