Top News
Check latest news Read →

Be good…. or be extinct!

  • Posted On: 11th June 2013
  • By:
Oppositionists of evolutionary biology claim that genetics has no obligation to altruism and good human behavior. The question is why do we strive to be good? Believe it or not, the answer lies in our genetic make up. Often confusing is the notion relating to “survival of the fittest” that one must struggle to survive, by hook or crook, in order to perpetuate ones genes. Similarly, examples in the animal kingdom would generally hint at a selfish, and at often times, cruel approach encompassing killing, capturing, stealing, and taking advantage of others. Typical examples would be a lion’s hunting, a praying mantis’ sexual endeavours, a silverback ape’s territorial violence, and so on. What one fails to realise is that these behavioral patterns are offshoots of natural selection. Yet, we go out of our way to perform favours for family, friends and even strangers all the time. We may even go so far as to risk our lives. What could possibly explain such a phenomenon in such a complex species? The term altruism has been given to specify such acts. So, in this selfish and cruel world sculpted by nature, why has altruism survived over our millions of years of evolution?
In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins revolutionised evolutionary biology and pointed to selfish behavioral patterns in every species. A mother would care for her child and go to extents of sacrificing her life because she wants the same thing that every cell in every organism strives for: survival. Selfishness sometimes extends to cruel activities carried out to ensure survival or betterment for oneself. However, our genetic makeup has also ensured that we create a survival for not only ourselves, but others around us. Primates, especially humans, and our closest relative, the chimpanzees have broken further away from other species as they exercise biological altruism as well as kinship altruism. It is not exactly prominent as to when in the evolutionary track primates became overly altruistic but biologists argue that it would be around the time when they became territorial and developed kinship. Kinship expanded the realm of selfishness to include neighbours and family members. It was important to develop a stable equilibrium in our kin and hence perform altruistic acts to ensure its safety. We carry those genes today and would take to a civilisation level by exercising altruism on complete strangers. There are various emotional offshoots of this genetic nature which we can witness. The urge one gets when shown a picture of a cute puppy or a baby is one of these many human emotions stemming from this so called “selfish gene”. As oxymoronic as it sounds, we do good because we are selfish beings!
Altruism also illustrates the ability to provide and hence our ancestors, subconsciously, approved of sexual partners based on this behavioral pattern. Obviously, it would be awkward that one would want to perpetuate ones genes with someone who loves killing, stealing and raping! The betterment of ones kinship would generally benefit oneself ultimately. In the animal kingdom, one can notice even in less complex creatures like emperor penguins, that altruism is rampant and the mainstay of the species. After enduring a tough winter, female penguins return to their mates and feed their newly hatched young. Many females return and find that their egg has been lost. This triggers negative emotions in the more sentimental penguins and motivates them to steal another’s offspring. In reaction, the other female penguins slap the perpetrator with their wings and ostracise her from the pack. In chimpanzees, compassion and goodwill are the key ingredients that chimps look for in order to democratically elect their chief. The Biology Department at The Ohio State University does stern studies of chimpanzees and their culture. One can see chimps raising orphaned babies, helping older chimps with day-to-day activities and consoling others that are in a state of depression. Emotionally volatile chimps that seem to disturb the social equilibrium via violent acts are again isolated and shunned. In almost all complex species studied, physical traits are not the only decisive sexual selective attributes.
Religions work to coordinate the co-adaption between the basic values of genotypes and culture types. Historically, religions should be looked at as products of the same selection processes, which our genes went through. Today, religion plays a very important role in establishing values and morals all over the world. These values and morals often set the standards which people follow for things like altruism. Creationists would argue that without religion, one can not do good. In a more secular sense, if we are not good, we are not going to last very long as a species.
Conclusively, we are good because we are selfish beings. We want what is best for us, our families, friends, society and culture. Our biological needs to save and rescue a kitten, feel love for a cute baby, the need to help a struggling older woman cross the street, give alms to a beggar, feed flock of starving birds, and care for our loved ones to the extent of self sacrifice, are examples of emotions stemming from our genetic makeup. Our “selfish” genes not only enable us to strive for our own survival, but also the survival and perpetuation of our species.

Leave A Reply