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Survival of the Selfless

Vivien Chen's picture

Vivien Chen

Survival of the Selfless 

A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past actions and future actions and their motives – approving of some and disapproving of others; and the fact that man is the one being who with certainty can be thus designated makes the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals” – Charles Darwin


             In my evolution and literature class the article, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail” by Jonathan Haidt was brought up while discussing humans’ perceptions of moral judgment. In this article, Haidt suggests that moral intuitions are the product of natural selection, as he includes in it Darwin’s belief that “ the human moral sense grew out of the social instincts of other animals” (Haidt 826). However, this idea can be quite puzzling to us especially if we examine the nature of altruistic behavior in animals and in humans, which is defined as a selfless “behavior by an animal that may be to its disadvantage but that benefits others of its kind” (Random House Dictionary). Usually, many parallel natural selection to the favoring of “selfish genes” which will lead to the “preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring” (Haidt 133) - this therefore contradicts the notion of selflessness in altruistic behavior. With this point in mind, in my paper I will analyze both arguments in the ways in which natural selection seems to contradict altruism and the ways in which natural selection supports it, and then I will propose a conclusion about the correlation of the two.

            To begin with, it is important to briefly explain Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the notion of survival of the fittest. In the novel ­On the Origin of Species, Darwin begins to describe this process with the struggle for existence. Here, he gives the example of a mistletoe plant which he states, “is dependent on the apple and a few other trees, but can only in a far-fetched sense be said to struggle with these trees, for if too many of these parasites grow on the same tree, it will languish and die. But several seedling mistletoes, growing close together on the same branch, may more truly be said to struggle with each other” (134). He concludes this finding by summarizing that every being must suffer destruction at some point in its life otherwise its numbers would increase too quickly, and therefore a struggle for existence is necessary.

            In contrast to the self-serving and competitive behavior, there is the discovery of altruistic behavior in animals and humans as well. Altruism, in evolutionary biology, is when an organism’s “behaviour benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself… So by behaving altruistically, an organism reduces the number of offspring it is likely to produce itself, but boosts the number that other organisms are likely to produce” (“Biological Altruism”). Altruistic behavior in animals can be seen everywhere in the natural world; for example, many animals give alarm calls, which risks drawing the attention of predators to themselves.

            By looking at the definition and given example of altruistic behavior (in animals), many seem to believe that Darwin’s theory of natural selection contradicts it. For instance, how can an organism behave altruistically, in which it behaves in a manner that at times can be detrimental to it, and yet still be expected to survive and carry on its genes to its offspring? So, keeping the idea of natural selection in mind, we are lead to believe that “by behaving altruistically, an animal reduces its own fitness, so [it] should be at a selective disadvantage” (“Biological Altruism”).

            Additionally, I previously gave the example that animals give alarm calls which draw the predator’s attention away from the animal in harm and instead puts the harm on the caller. To provide more detail on this, I will use Okasha’s example of Vervet monkeys in his article, “Biological Altruism.” If some members of a group of Vervet monkeys give alarm calls when they see predators, but others do not, the latter group of monkeys will have an advantage. By selfishly refusing to give an alarm call, a monkey can reduce the chance that it will be attacked. To conclude, we would assume that the monkeys that did not give the alarm calls would have a bigger chance of survival; thus natural selection would favor the selfish monkeys over the ones that exhibited selfless behavior (“Biological Altruism”).

            Consequently, the idea that natural selection contradicts altruistic behavior in animals seems favorable; however, if we look more deeply into Darwin’s definition of natural selection we can see how in fact, altruism can be compatible with Darwin’s principles. The mere fact that we are able to witness altruistic behavior happening all around us gives us confidence that it has been a “preserved” part of human nature. In addition, to imagine altruism in action, I will use FitzPatricks’s example of worker bees in his article “Morality and Evolutionary Biology.” The bee colony emphasizes social cooperation– there is the division of labor, food sharing, information sharing, and also sacrifice within the hive. The sacrificial and selfless behavior of protecting the hive as well as the queen bee is an example of altruistic behavior at work. By protecting their hive and their queen, they ensure the queen’s ability to reproduce, and therefore ensure the continuation of their lineage (“Morality and Evolutionary Biology”).

            I would also like to add that Darwin actually declares, “There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree of spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes…” (Darwin 536). This statement made by Darwin exemplifies the cooperation between bees, but these behaviors can also be seen all around us- for these reasons, I do not see a reason why natural selection does not favor altruism.

            In conclusion, Darwin also adds that, “the first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy; and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained… through natural selection” (Darwin 554). Darwin leaves us with a rather broad definition of natural selection; and it is important to note that it encompasses more than just the preservation of the “fit genes,” as he does not hesitate to mention the fact that organisms depend on each other for more than just selfish reasons. There are still many questions about morality and the evolution of morality left unanswered, but it is important to consider both sides of the argument. These complex ideas are perfect examples to show how much more about natural selection there is to explore.

Works Cited


"Altruism." Random House Dictionary, Inc. 07 Feb. 2011.


Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Ed. Joseph Carroll. Ontario: Broadview, 2003.


Haidt, Jonathon. "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment." 108.4 (2001): 814-34.


FitzPatrick, William, "Morality and Evolutionary Biology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)


Levy, N. (2002). Review of Evolutionary Origins of Morality edited by Leonard D. Katz. Human Nature Review. 2: 326-330.


Okasha, Samir, "Biological Altruism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.


Anne Dalke's picture

Beyond the Individual Self?

you approach here one of the ongoing puzzles of evolutionary biology: why animals act to benefit others than themselves. There are lots of student papers on that topic on Serendip, many of them written for earlier versions of this class; you might want to check them out for a review of some of the significant behavioral studies done on this topic.

You structure your paper as review of two contrary perspectives--does natural selection contradict or support altruism?--and then propose a correlation of the two, which (if I follow you correctly) you arrive @ by re-defining the trait less as specific behaviors performed against one's own self-interest, and more generally as mutual interdependence and cooperation. (Do I have that right?)

I found myself wondering, @ several points while reading your essay, about your description of the "mere fact that we are able to witness altruistic behavior happening all around us," which "gives us confidence that it has been a 'preserved' part of human nature." Let's stop and break that down a moment. Do we actually witness altruism directly? Or do we witness actions that we interpret as altruistic? Does the interpretation of "altruism" depend on a definition of the self as inherently selfish (and/or self-preserving?), and therefore as inevitably acting "against" itself when its behavior benefits other organisms, @ a cost to itself?

But what if we redefined self in some more capacious sense, as fundamentally interdependent on others? And therefore always acting in "self"-interest, with self being conceptualized as something larger than the individual organism, and never separate from other organisms? This is an idea I'd be eager to explore with you.