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Saturday, March 19, 2011


I casually commented to a friend the other day that, since humans are by nature selfish and self-centered, it is not too surprising that we cannot find a way to take collective action to do what we can to reverse climate change. I thought I was being fairly non-controversial; I have so long considered selfishness to be a basic component of the human condition that I stated it more as a premise than a talking point. My friend, however, took great umbrage at this idea, denied that she, for one was selfish or self-centered, and refused to discuss this further. Hmm....

I guess to me it just makes good sense that, as we are a comparatively weak, slow species, a sort of tunnel vision focused on our own safety has been one of the only reasons we have survived to this point. Put another way, those who were more altruistic in the prehistoric days of human evolution died out and did not pass their genes along, so only the selfish genes survived.

Perhaps the problem really is (as is quite often the case) one of semantics. The word "selfish" has a connotation of judgment to it, and my friend did, indeed, seem to think I was accusing her of something base. I actually believe quite the opposite, that, given the premise that we are by nature selfish, the fact that we often choose altruism and generosity over self-interest is a remarkable and laudable thing. My only contention is that it is in fact a choice and that it goes against our most basic nature. Is there a better term for this than selfishness? "Survivalist" has already been taken, and has a distinctly distasteful meaning for most of us. I am open to suggestions.

It is interesting to note at the Wikipedia page for altruism that several experiments have been done to demonstrate that this quality does have some antecedents in evolution, and that survival of the tribe or larger organism may come before survival of the individual. It may also be argued, though, (and has been) that this is also less than pure altruism, as the individual would not have survived in any case in these circumstances and therefore the survival of the larger entity also has a selfish motive, being a greater good than the death of the individual, though not as highly valued as survival of the individual would have been had that been possible. Or, it could be what is called "inclusive fitness", meaning that what appears to be altruistic behavior toward the group is actually a survival mechanism for the individual (i.e., by guaranteeing the viability of the group, the individual is more likely to survive). On the other hand, neurobiologists have demonstrated that there is a pleasure center in the brain activated by acts of charity for which the individual will receive no other reward.  Hmm, I say again. Comments would be most welcome.

1 comment:

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