Social Question

wundayatta's avatar

"Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. All else is commentary."?

Asked by wundayatta (58693points) March 1st, 2012

In an article about the genetics of altruism in the New Yorker Jonah Lehrer attributes the title quote to biologist E.O. Wilson.

What do you think about the way selfishness and altruism play out in society and in your life? How do you decide when to be selfish and when to be altruistic? How much of the time are you altruistic, do you think?

Do you agree with the quote?

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5 Answers

talljasperman's avatar

I just be myself.

funkdaddy's avatar

I think this is a case where the words that are used don’t carry the meanings we’re most used to seeing them in.

We think of altruism as helping others and it carries a very good connotation. Selfishness on the other hand carries a very negative connotation. Selfishness in our society is almost never seen as a good thing.

As used in the quote, altruistic and selfish are the only two classifications in a broad game theory type experiment. Basically you set some rules, go at the game with different very simple and rigid strategies, and see what strategy comes out best. (wikipedia has some good stuff on game theory check out the biology section)

In biology the definitions are much different than in our society. “winning” the game basically comes down to breeding. Whoever passes on their genes wins. So there are really only two opportunities to be selfish or altruistic. Breeding and surviving.

So the quote basically comes down to individuals should make sure their genes are passed along within a group (selfish) but make sure the group as a whole survives (altruistic).

So beat up that other gorilla to make sure you get to mate, but if the lions come, make sure no one gets eaten.

Translating the same idea in a more human and socially acceptable way would be something like “Take care of your family first, but make sure you help your fellow man in need”... which I can get down with.

rojo's avatar

Hey, this goes with the “women and children first” question!

Cruiser's avatar

I liked the analogy of altruistic behaviors possibly being a genetic trait linked to the survival of a species like the ant colonies and can see how that would apply to selfless acts to save a next of kin.

But I see that alruism in a group would be selfish in it’s own right by that to be part of a group is then having to be alruistic and how do you define an altruistic act or behavior that is now a prerequisit for membership in that group. Thus sarificing time of self to be altruistic is now a selfish act without the benefits of being selfish. So the group that is inherently selfish who focuses on the survival of self and the greater good of the group will IMO have a much greater chance of survial.

And anytime I am altruistic it is indeed for the betterment of my close family mmembers and any other altruistic activities for the greated good of the community is done out of peer pressure to do a good deed because you are expected to not because I felt the need to.

LostInParadise's avatar

The quote holds true in a biological sense. As pointed out by @Cruiser , an ant colony is a good example. Even Richard Dawkins, who came up with the selfish gene theory, has changed his position. We act altruistically as a society by providing help for those who are unable to help themselves. The libertarian position is unworkable. Where armies are not voluntary, military service is also a form of group altruism

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