Human altruism–proximate patterns and evolutionary origins

Analyse & Kritik 27 (1):6-47 (2005)
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Abstract

Are people selfish or altruistic? Throughout history this question has been answered on the basis of much introspection and little evidence. It has been at the heart of many controversial debates in politics, science, and philosophy. Some of the most fundamental questions concerning our evolutionary origins, our social relations, and the organization of society are centered around issues of altruism and selfishness. Experimental evidence indicates that human altruism is a powerful force and unique in the animal world. However, there is much individual heterogeneity and the interaction between altruists and selfish individuals is key for understanding the evolutionary dynamics as well as the proximate patterns of human cooperation. Depending on the environment, a minority of altruists can force a majority of selfish individuals to cooperate or, conversely, a few egoists can induce a large number of altruists to defect. Current gene-based evolutionary theories cannot explain important patterns of human altruism pointing towards the need for theories of cultural evolution and gene-culture coevolution.

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