Berkeley Scientists Make Evolutionary Case for Altruism

Free-market fundamentalists may hate altruism, but it's built into our genes

By Jackson West
|  Tuesday, Dec 8, 2009  |  Updated 5:45 PM PDT
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Berkeley Scientists Make Evolutionary Case for Altruism

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The banking crises shook even Alan Greenspan's faith in self-interest being the only worthy virtue, and psychologists at UC Berkeley are gathering evidence that altruism may be an evolutionary advantage.

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In the postulates of economists like former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the purest expression of humanity is self-interest, and altruism considered a weakness.

The tenets of what some call social Darwinism find a strong following in the supposedly meritocratic precincts of Silicon Valley, where technostrivers avidly read works by so-called "goddess of capitalism" Ayn Rand which argue against altruism.

However, professors at the University of California, Berkeley beg to differ.

"Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate," says Cal psychologist Dacher Keltner.

In one study that is similar to those conducted by game theorists, sociologist Robb Willer gave subjects small amounts of cash and asked them to play games. The results indicated that the more generous players earned more gifts, respect and admiration than the tightwads.

"The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated," Willer surmised.

Willer's study was done under the auspices of Cal's Greater Good Science Center, which is run by Keltner, who believes that the findings support Darwin's sense that "sympathy is our strongest instinct" -- and is helping to put to rest the rantings of "social Darwinists" and their adoration of only the fittest.

Jackson West alway figured that the problem with deifying self-interest is that what's good for the goose isn't always good for the gander.

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