Charles Darwin regarded the problem of altruism—the act of helping someone else, even if it comes at a steep personal cost—as a potentially fatal challenge to his theory of natural selection. After all, if life was such a cruel “struggle for existence,” then how could a selfless individual ever live long enough to reproduce? Why would natural selection favor a behavior that made us less likely to survive? In “The Descent of Man,” Darwin wrote, “He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.” And yet, as Darwin knew, altruism is everywhere, a stubborn anomaly of nature. Bats feed hungry brethren; honeybees defend the hive by committing suicide with a sting; birds raise offspring that aren’t their own; humans leap onto subway tracks to save strangers. The sheer ubiquity of such behavior suggests that kindness is not a losing life strategy.
For more than a century after Darwin, altruism remained a paradox. The first glimmers of a solution arrived in a Bloomsbury pub in the early nineteen-fifties. According to legend, the biologist J. B. S. Haldane was several pints into the afternoon when he was asked how far he would go to save the life of another person. Haldane thought for a moment, and then started scribbling numbers on the back of a napkin. “I would jump into a river to save two brothers, but not one,” Haldane said. “Or to save eight cousins but not seven.” His drunken answer summarized a powerful scientific idea. Because individuals share much of their genome with close relatives, a trait will also persist if it leads to the survival of their kin. According to Haldane’s moral arithmetic, sacrificing for a family member is just a different way of promoting our own DNA.
The idea of group altruism is interesting to me. My father grew up in a large family and he has always prized a certain submission to the will of the group. I quickly learned to speak in terms of "maximizing utility" for everyone concerned, in a very Bentham/Utilitarianism type of way, and my family would follow my plan over others.
Of course, as a sociopath I'm supposed to be a "cheater" -- someone who pretends to work for the good of the group while secretly not pulling my weight or siphoning off a disproportional amount of community output.
But I don't, or not always. I guess it's because unlike bats or bees I'm not surrounded by idiots half the time. Especially when I'm with my family or close friends who know better, it would be very difficult to defraud them consistently. Maybe because I'm human and not a bat or a bee I can make higher cognitive determinations like it is better for me to be part of a group in which I support them and they support me in turn.
Could there be another reason why I engage in this sort of in-group altruism? Is it because I don't just need specific things from the people in my group but actually need to associate with people in general? From this Psychology Today post:
The idea that humans have a need to belong to social groups is so fundamental in psychology that one of the seminal papers on this topic has been cited 2572 times since its publication in 1995. Belonging doesn't just feel good — it's often essential for our very survival, even in modern times.
Do I also have an evolutionary drive to "belong"? I actually think that I do, or at least I can feel in-group loyalty. How about others?