Altruism and Tribalism

There has always been a puzzle in evolutionary biology as to how altruism arose. On first flush, it would seem that sacrificing oneself for another would be detrimental to passing on genes that foster altruism. However, Darwin himself thought that altruism could arise if humans were organized into hostile tribes. From the Descent of Man he notes that the tribes that had more “courageous, sympathetic and faithful members who were always ready to…aid and defend each other… would spread and be victorious over other tribes.” A recent paper in Science by Samuel Bowles presents a calculation that supports Darwin’s hypothesis.

If this hypothesis is correct, then altruism required lethal hostility to flourish and survive. Our capacity for great acts of sacrifice and empathy may go hand in hand with our capacity for brutality and selfishness. It may be why a person can simultaneously be a racist and a humanist. It may also mean that the sectarian violence we are currently witnessing and have witnessed throughout history may be as part of being human as caring for an ailing neighbor or taking a bullet for a friend. Our propensity for kindness may go hand in hand with that of bigotry and violence. It may be that the more homogeneous we become, the less altruistic we may be. Perhaps there may be an important societal role for spectator sports. Cheering for the home team may give us that sense of tribalism and triumph that we need. Maybe, just maybe, hating that cross-town rival makes us kinder in the office and on the roads. What irony that would be.

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