Altruists at War

W.G. Runciman

  • A Co-operative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis
    Princeton, 262 pp, £24.95, July 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 15125 0

How is it that the members of a species as greedy, quarrelsome, egoistic and deceitful as ours still manage to live together in societies sufficiently harmonious and orderly not to be constantly breaking apart? Mid-20th-century sociologists used to call it ‘the problem of order’, which many of them saw as constituting the raison d’être for the academic discipline of sociology. But they didn’t have much success in solving it. The ‘structural-functionalists’, who stressed the normative and integrative aspects of human social organisation, were answered by the ‘conflict theorists’, who stressed the constant struggles between incompatible ideological and material interests. Politics came into it too, as sociologists for whom the US was the showpiece of enlightened liberal democracy clashed with others for whom it exemplified unbridled competition, entrenched racism and the systematic exploitation by the rich of the poor.

But from the 1970s onwards, the question was being reformulated in a way of which most sociologists remained studiously unaware. The impetus came partly from evolutionary biologists, who saw the problem not as one of ‘order’ but ‘altruism’. But it came also from psychologists, anthropologists, archaeologists and game theorists, who between them not only restated the problem in different terms but developed new methods with which to address it. They set themselves both to demonstrate the extent to which present-day human beings are genuinely disposed to co-operate with each other for reasons other than self-interest, and to explain how such behaviour could have evolved under the conditions in which our anatomically and psychologically modern ancestors lived for many tens of thousands of years.

Altruists are people who do things that benefit other people at a net cost to themselves. In biology, cost and benefit are measured in terms of reproductive fitness, so the difficulty is to explain how natural selection could favour individual loss of fitness for the benefit of the group to which the individual belongs. That question was effectively disposed of by W.D. Hamilton and others, who showed how altruism, as a strategy transmitted either genetically or culturally (or both), can spread in a population provided that its carriers are more likely than they would be by chance to receive a benefit from those with whom they interact. In populations both small and large, individuals will not only subordinate their selfish interests to the interests of close relations but offer help to strangers if they anticipate receiving a benefit in return. But so-called ‘reciprocal altruism’ isn’t authentically unselfish (as admitted by Robert Trivers, who coined the phrase) if the anticipated benefit is greater than the immediate cost. It’s therefore just as well for us all that altruism takes other forms too. People often bear costs not only in reproductive fitness but in material resources, discomfort, time and trouble, and personal risk for the sake of others besides family and friends even if they expect no return from them and have no ongoing relationship with them. Helpfulness, generosity and courage are admired and imitated, and free-riders, promise-breakers, thieves, cheats and fraudsters are disliked and shunned. What’s more, people are willing to punish those whose selfish behaviour they disapprove of even when they have not suffered directly from it themselves. But the cynics still need to be convinced that this is what’s really going on. Isn’t it too good to be true? Is altruism merely self-interest in disguise?

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in