Think about it. Darwin’s theory of evolution is based upon the idea that the fittest survive.
But generosity cuts against that idea. Under Darwin’s law, it would seem that generous people would be at a competitive disadvantage—they’d die first. Sam Kean, writing for The Atlantic, “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving,” puts it as follows:
Explaining generosity—or, more generally, altruism—is actually a headache for biologists. Charles Darwin considered the trait one of the gravest threats to his theory of natural selection.
To understand why, imagine a tribe of our ancestors. Some people are givers, willing to share food and goods. Others are stingy and selfish. Those in the first group sound like better people, but from a survival standpoint, they’re being daft. Since there’s only so much food to go around in the wild, the math is clear and cruel: over the long term, generous people will probably get wiped out.
Generosity would seem to cut against your odds of survival, but instead countless people embrace kindness and generosity as guiding principles for life. How can those values hold such a prominent place in the world if Darwin’s theory is true?
Generosity runs deep in us, even at the level of brain chemistry. Multiple neurologic studies demonstrate that giving away money provides more pleasure than receiving it. It actually feels better to give than to receive.
Is Generosity Just Disguised Selfishness?
Some Darwin fans have sought to overcome this seeming gap. For instance, in “Why is it nice to be nice? Solving Darwin’s puzzle of kindness” on The Conversation, Eva Krockow, Andrew Colman and Briony Pulford describe the struggle to explain kindness. They note:
“[T]he selfless behaviour of sterile ants, who protect their colonies from dangerous predators, poses a problem that Darwin himself at first considered “insuperable, and actually fatal to my whole theory.”
The authors present various explanations that have been proposed for why people act altruistically, seemingly against their own self-interest. They ultimately conclude with a question:
“Kindness is rational. But does its rationality undermine its spontaneous appeal? Is kindness merely a carefully disguised behavioral expression of selfishness? Does altruism even exist?”
Are generosity and kindness really selfishness in disguise? Or could they originate from an entirely different source than Darwin’s theory can account for? What’s your opinion?
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
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Published January 10, 2020