The beauty of self interest

In my review of E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, I quoted this passage which captures Wilson’s conception of the origin of cooperation in humans.

Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behaviour among group members – in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole.

This passage from Matt Ridley strikes at the heart of Wilson’s dichotomy between selfishness and generosity:

“Group selection” has always been portrayed as a more politically correct idea, implying that there is an evolutionary tendency to general altruism in people. Gene selection has generally seemed to be more of a right-wing idea, in which individuals are at the mercy of the harsh calculus of the genes.

Actually, this folk understanding is about as misleading as it can be. Society is not built on one-sided altruism but on mutually beneficial co-operation.

Nearly all the kind things people do in the world are done in the name of enlightened self-interest. Think of the people who sold you coffee, drove your train, even wrote your newspaper today. They were paid to do so but they did things for you (and you for them). Likewise, gene selection clearly drives the evolution of a co-operative instinct in the human breast, and not just towards close kin.

You can read the full article here.

3 thoughts on “The beauty of self interest

  1. Thanks so much for bringing Ridley’s blog into the discussion Jason. The whole dispute and discussion are both enlightening and salutary. We are learning from the masters, despite their esteemed ages and positions and apparent disagreement, still.

    I am interested that you did not pursue, however, what is surely Ridley’s significant contribution where he says:

    “…group selection is a theory of competition between groups, and that is generally known by another name in human affairs. We call it war. If group selection were to work properly, war would mean the total annihilation of the enemy by the victorious group.”

    He drops this bombshell without comment and proceeds to wrap up his blogpost as though the conclusion were obvious. I presume the bombshell means that Ridley believes this quoted passage to not be true (perhaps because since the species still exists, that particular scenario of pursuing ultimate war to its ultimate conclusion, did not happen). If that’s what he believes then why didn’t he say that? If that’s not what he believes, then what does he believe?

    As for me, I believe that humanity did indeed pursue Ridley’s group selection working ‘properly’ right up until it actually tested it out by dropping two nuclear bombs on fellow human beings within a few days of one another. The Americans, by doing the production and the dropping, were the agents of that — of humanity’s — experiment.

    I also believe that humanity, as a whole, has also decided never to do that again. The experiment revealed the imminence of group selection having its final say, finally … and we backed down. The Cuban missile crisis was one last attempt to play the game by those old rules (I am old enough to remember that event very clearly). Once again, sanity prevailed.

    So: it’s not that group selection didn’t or doesn’t work (I mean history is replete with tales — true stories — of human groups exterminating other human groups). It does. It’s just that we, collectively, decided to override it. Use our prefrontal neo-cortexes, collectively, to do something different and differently… to not allow group selection to carry out its ultimate, final conclusion for us, for our species.

    And now, these days, we are confronting a different, though some would say equally challenging issue: climate change. And we need to apply the same brains, in the same way– collectively — to its resolution. The fact that two of the largest historical and potential polluters on the planet have been secretly discussing this problem for –quite some time? — and have recently announced a common agreement — a common goal for our common future — is one of the more optimistic things that I have heard in quite a long time.

    Is it possible that human intelligence, wisely applied, is going to get us collectively out of this latest scrape, as well?

    We can — discreetly and modestly — hope as much. For the next big (economic) crisis is also apparently waiting in the wings. And we need to attend to that, as well. It, being another inherently social problem with much more immediate and personal felt and imagined consequences for so many, may not be so ‘simple’. hahahaha

    Thanks again, Jason, for getting us to the quick of these issues. I look forward to each of your posts with great anticipation.

    Cheers from here,


    1. Thanks for your thoughts Lee. Ridley’s scepticism likely comes from the nature of war for most of our past. Women and children are typically incorporated into the victorious group, bringing with them any traits that might have led their group to be less successful. That level of intergroup movement makes the development of group adaptations unlikely. Of course, if you move into a multilevel selection framework, and you could still make an argument there is some selection at levels higher than the individual, but it would be weak given the frequency with which groups take each other out.

      1. Thanks Jason. Multilevel selection it is and by my reading of Peter Turchin’s work when the successful empires of the past worked best, they used their dominance and reach to enforce relatively peaceful coexistence and even cooperation within the whole group (still warlike against outgroups of course)… arguably with capitalism’s success as the single remaining empire for the globalized planet we’ve reached the apex of what all that can accomplish … now, it’s time to switch to doing it consciously and deliberately w/o the violence either direct (war) or indirect (economic)… and quite amazingly to me, we are … look at that recent conflagration in the Middle East … despite the hundreds of deaths (not insignificant of course) yet the parties spent weeks on end at repeated attempts to find a truce … they were at it 6 or 8 times by my recollection… we don’t know how to do it well yet in such incendiary places, but even they kept trying … we are gradually abandoning the violent resolution of violently imposed conflict as a means of resolving human disputes … and that’s got to be good news … even 10 years ago it took a couple of years and thousands of dead (not hundreds) before people started considering talking instead of fighting…group selection worked and brought us to here, but we’ve figured out pragmatically that in fact it can’t take us any further either and we’d better decide to do it ourselves…;)

        Thanks again,


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