My better nature

Alone with Darwin

Peter Singer

Making it alone

How selfish are human beings, really? It's a perennially fascinating question. In ancient Athens, if Plato is to be believed, Socrates debated it with Glaucon, who maintained that if only we could get away with it, we would all rob and kill to achieve our own ends. Socrates argued that only ignorance of the real nature of justice could lead a person to do that.

Just a century or so later, but on the other side of the planet, the Chinese sage Kao Tzu compared human nature to a pool of water: it can be made to flow to the east or to the west, depending on where one makes a breach. His opponent Mencius pounced on the analogy, saying that water nevertheless has a natural inclination, to flow downhill, and if human beings are allowed to follow their natural feelings, they, too, will incline to the good. In both West and East, these contrasting positions echo down the ages, each with its own proponents. But now that we have science, rather than mere anecdote, to answer such a question, shouldn't we be able to settle the issue once and for all?

Indeed, science has brought us closer to an answer. There is now a large body of relevant research. Some of it comes from the application of an evolutionary viewpoint to understanding the way we behave: a field known as evolutionary psychology. Initially, the idea that human nature is the product of evolutionary selection seemed to count against belief in the possibility of altruism. If we have evolved from beings who succeeded in the competition to leave more descendants in subsequent generations than their rivals, how could it be otherwise? Typical of this view is Pierre van den Berghe, who wrote in his 1978 text Sociobiology and Human Nature: "We are programmed to care only about ourselves and our relatives."

Yet this line of thinking conceals a crucial slide that makes the reasoning erroneous. Yes, it must be true that our genes lead us to act in ways that, for most of the evolutionary history of our species, led our ancestors to survive long enough to reproduce and to have offspring who survived and themselves reproduced - or, perhaps, to improve the survival prospects of others who carry the same genes, such as close relatives. But this does not mean that we care only about ourselves and our relatives. What the effect of our actions is, and what we care about, are two quite different things.

Here's a familiar example. The desire for sexual intercourse is one of the strongest human desires. That's entirely consistent with the evolutionary story, of course. If our ancestors had not had a desire for sexual intercourse, we would not be here. But that does not mean that we want to have sex in order to have children. A woman who thinks that she can rid herself of the attention of a persistent male by telling him that she is on the pill is going to be sorely disappointed. Most of us, most of the time, just want sex. That is the way evolution has programmed us. It works indirectly, on the basis of an evident link between what we are biologically driven to do and what will lead to our reproductive success.

There is no reason this indirect form of programming should not work in other areas as well. Consider something that is as universal and as basic to human beings as sex: co-operation. In every society known to us, humans form co-operative relationships with others. Some kind of norm of reciprocity - do good to those who do good to you and harm to those who harm you - is a strong candidate for being a culturally universal moral standard. Nothing surprising here: it is tough making it alone and so there are good reasons why humans will do better if they do co-operate with others. But does this prove that co-operation is just another form of selfishness, that we care only about our own interests and we co-operate in order