Explaining human altruism

Synthese 199 (1-2):2395-2413 (2020)
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Humans often behave altruistically towards strangers with no chance of reciprocation. From an evolutionary perspective, this is puzzling. The evolution of altruistic cooperative behavior—in which an organism’s action reduces its fitness and increases the fitness of another organism —only makes sense when it is directed at genetically related organisms or when one can expect the favor to be returned. Therefore, evolutionary theorists such as Sober and Wilson have argued that we should revise Neo-Darwininian evolutionary theory. They argue that human altruism evolved through group selection in which groups of altruists were naturally selected because they had a comparative advantage over other groups. Wilson and Sober’s hypothesis attracted followers but is rejected by most of their peers. The heated debate between advocates and critics of group selection often suffers from a lack of conceptual clarity. In response, I set out to clearly distinguish ‘genetic’ from ‘cultural’ group selection and argue that the latter does not face the potentially debilitating problems plaguing the former. I defend the claim that human altruistic dispositions evolved through cultural group selection and gene-culture coevolution and offer empirical evidence in support. I also argue that actual altruistic behavior often goes beyond the kind of behavior humans have evolved to display. Conscious and voluntary reasoning processes, I show, have an important role in altruistic behavior. This is often overlooked in the scientific literature on human altruism.

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Michael Vlerick
Tilburg University

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