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.