The following scenarios have been proposed to explain the apparent
altruism among living systems as a result of Darwinian genetic evolution:
Consider two groups of organisms, one in which the individuals have a genetic
tendency towards cooperation, and one without such a tendency. The altruistic
group will have a larger overall fitness, because of the synergy created by
cooperation. Hence, the altruistic group will be more fit and eventually
replace the selfish one.
Critique: this scenario ignores the problem of
suboptimization. Within the altruistic group the greatest increase in fitness
will go to those individuals that are least cooperative, since they profit from
the others' altruism while doing less in return. As a result, the non-altruists
will gradually overtake the altruists. Cooperative systems tend to be eroded
from within by "genetic competition between the cooperators" (Campbell, 1983).
What is selectively retained in biological evolution is not the individual but
the individual's genes (Dawkins, 1976). For the genes it may be
advantageous to sacrifice the life of an individual if that can save other
individuals ("kin") carrying the same genes. Thus, parents will tend to be
altruistic towards their offspring and siblings towards siblings. In groups
like ant colonies, where individuals share most of their genes, there is more
benefit in helping the colony queen to produce more, closely related offspring
than to produce offspring of one's own. This is sufficient to explain
ultrasociality in the insect world (Campbell, 1983).
Critique: this reasoning cannot explain ultrasociality in
human society at large, where there is little sharing of genes between
The "prisoner's dilemma" may be overcome by a strategy of "tit-for-tat",
which reciprocates to cooperation by cooperation and to defection by defection.
This makes it impossible for selfish individuals, who defect, to gain long-term
advantages from reciprocal cooperators, since these will only cooperate with
those that cooperate themselves. Yet two "tit-for-tat" players will
spontaneously start to cooperate thus reaping the benefits of continuing
synergy (Axelrod, 1984).
Critique: at the first encounter, none of the players knows
how the other one will respond. In order to have a chance to start a
cooperative exchange the reciprocal altruist must start with a cooperative
move, which can be taken advantage of by a defector. The strategy only starts
to pay when there are repeated encounters with the same individual, so that the
gains of continuing cooperation outweigh the losses of first-time encounters
with defectors. It also implies that players should recognize different
partners and remember their last moves toward a given partner in order to
choose the appropriate next move. This is insufficient to explain a complex
ultrasocial system, where many encounters are first-time.
Moralizing = punishing selfishness and rewarding altruism in others. It has the
advantage that it stimulates altruism, diminishes the fitness of defectors, and
carries less costs than being spontaneously altruistic (Campbell, 1979).
Critique: moralism can only maintain an existing cooperative
arrangement, it cannot create one from scratch. Effective moralism requires a
higher order ethical system which is quite complicated to evolve by genetic
Several promising avenues have been proposed to explain the evolution of
cooperation, but each has its limitations, and they seem ineffective as a way
to explain human ultrasociality solely on the basis of genetic evolution.
Reference: Heylighen F. (1992) : "Evolution,
Selfishness and Cooperation", Journal of Ideas, Vol 2, # 4, pp