The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation
Darwin on Man
“Origin of man now proved…. He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”1 With this bold statement, made in a pocket notebook in 1838, Charles Darwin broached the revolutionary research program that would culminate in his two masterworks—the Origin of Species (1859) and the Descent of Man (1871). No aspect of Darwin’s evolutionary theorizing was more controversial than its disturbing implica-tions for humankind. And none has proved to be more fraught with scientific difficulties.
Perhaps the greatest of the conceptual difficulties that Darwin faced was the phenomenon of altruism. In a world evolved according to natural selection, cooperative behavior is a puzzle. This is because natural selection is inherently selfish, promoting adaptations that serve only the individual. The survival instinct of each individual, Darwin asserted in the Origin of Species, “is good for itself, but has never, as far as we can judge, been produced for the exclusive good of others.”2 In the Origin, where he largely avoided the topic of humans, and later in the Descent of Man, Darwin wrestled with this issue in ways that never fully satisfied him. So great was his acumen on this difficult problem that he nevertheless managed to articulate, in rudimentary form, each of the three most compelling theories extended by his successors during the next century.
As a first solution, Darwin proposed that natural selection might give rise to altruistic behaviors, such as risking one’s life for another individual, if these behaviors benefited family members. The basis for his solution was that family members generally share the same inherited traits, including any genetic propensities toward giving mutual aid. To the extent that close relatives achieve superior reproductive success as a result of receiving assistance, their offspring will tend to pass on any genes that enhance reproduction—the central mechanism of Darwinian evolution. Darwin also considered the idea of reciprocity among non-kin, concluding that cooperative forms of behavior could arise as long as the favors or benefits that nonfamily members received were reciprocated over the long run. Finally, Darwin considered the possibility of the natural selection of some groups as opposed to others. He reasoned that communities behaving in a cooperative fashion would tend to be more successful than less altruistic communities.
Darwin’s attempts to resolve the problem of altruism were not particularly convincing to most of his contemporaries, who abhorred the materialistic implications of his theories and who saw moral behavior as compelling evidence of a benevolent Designer. Even Alfred Russel Wallace, who co-discovered the theory of natural selection in 1858 while collecting biological specimens in Malaysia, later concluded that the human brain could not have attained its present form solely by natural selection. The mind, Wallace reasoned, was capable of far more impressive feats of intellectual ability than could possibly have been useful to our ancestors living in a state of nature. He therefore embraced that postmodernism…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.