The evolution of human interaction: selfish vs. selfless

Two boys in the park, having fun with colored eggs for Easter

Evolutionary theory suggests two major pathways through which human nature may have evolved. In the first and most commonly held view, humans selfishly follows “survival of the fittest” and “every man for himself.” Selfishness and the drive to survive anchors human nature. Alternatively, human nature may have evolved in a selfless direction fostering cooperation and community. To weigh these competing hypotheses, cognitive scientist Fabrice Clément (University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland) and colleagues tested young children to see whether they defaulted towards selfish or selfless interaction. As it turned out, selflessness prevailed.

Some would immediately dispute that all altruistic or selfless behavior really reduces to selfish behavior. That is, people have hidden (selfish) agendas, and these explain why they appear to act selflessly. Such an argument aims to show that “survival of the fittest” reigns supreme, even if it can lead to counterintuitive behavior (like charity).

The researchers disagree with this “all roads lead to selfishness” argument. They instead point out that if cooperation genuinely yields an evolutionary advantage, then selflessness could have evolved without any hidden agenda. In other words, we shouldn’t reduce selfless to selfish behavior.

With selfless behavior defended as a legitimate evolutionary alternative, the researchers weighed the two alternatives (selfless vs. selfish) by conducting an experiment using three- and four-year-old children. The researchers presented each child with four stories, depicted in pictures of toy figurines. The first involved sharing: one figurine held a bag of candy before another figurine. The second helping: a passer-by seeing an injured figurine who fell off a bike. The third and fourth stories both centered around cooperation: in the third, two figurines are told that the first person to climb a tree will receive ice cream, while in the fourth story, two figurines are told that they will receive money for sweeping the road. Importantly, rather than asking what the children themselves would do in a particular situation, these stories instead asked the children what they expected would happen. For example, do the children typically expect people to work together in sweeping the road and then share the money, or compete to be the first to do so?

After crunching the numbers, the children (of both age groups) overwhelmingly favored selfless over selfish or neutral behavior. As the researchers put it, “In summary, 3- and 4-year-old children expected the two strangers to adopt prosocial behavior toward each other. Without knowing anything about the characters’ past history or previous relationship, they predicted that they would share things, offer help, and cooperate to achieve a goal.”

Interestingly enough, the researchers also discovered that when they told a story with a girl protagonist, both girls and boys alike expected more selfless behavior as when compared to a boy protagonist. There may be disposition to expect help from females more so than males.

If children’s intuitions are any indication, then evolution has predisposed people to act selflessly. Of course, this hardly means there is no selfish behavior (there obviously is), but it does at least suggest that the value of cooperation in social organisms like humans supercedes the stereotypical “survival of the fittest” mentality. Evolution undoubtedly works by a kind of “survival of the fittest” (to oversimplify the matter), but this is no hard and fast rule–other dynamics, such as social dynamics, and lead to more complex or at least different ways of survival. While children are not necessarily a time machine that give access to humanity’s primitive past, they do tell us about humanity as it currently is, and of its future.

For more, see “Rousseau’s Child Preschoolers Expect Strangers to Favor Prosocial Actions” in the Swiss Journal of Psychology.

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