It's unfortunate for all of us that important findings in the social sciences are too often ignored by media pundits, especially by those pundits who have established public attention.
For the past several decades there's been a great commotion in the media about the biological roots of altruism and its counterpart selfishness. Media pundits, especially those who write for newspapers, love to write and talk about this stuff because it both appeals to the general public imagination while also appealing to various political interests. If you make an argument that selfishness is innate and ordinary, you can bet your bippy that you're going to have the attention of the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, several conservative columnists at the New York Times, and of course every sociopath operating in Lower Manhattan. In contrast, if you make an argument that selfishness is extraordinary and a culture-driven psychiatric aberration, you immediately get the attention of people on the philosophical Left and the anger of everyone who believes evolutionary psychology is the most marvelous invention since Edmund Burke looked at his navel and cried eureka.
What saves us all -- in the long run -- is that reality comes to us not from media pundits (self-appointed or appointed by their media bosses) but by research in the social sciences. A good example is the history of psychoanalytic theory, which dominated all public and private imagination for fifty years -- until the social sciences demonstrated by research that the theory was more fancy than fact, more philosophy than science.
So what about altruism? A week ago, on March 19, there appeared in the journal Science a research report by 14 anthropologists and social scientists domestic and foreign (lead author Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia, Canada) with the title: "Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment." [Note 1] My own view is that this single paper is one of the most important reports of research to appear in decades, a report that blows away the heavy cloud of fatuous debate about the origins of altruism and selfishness, rhetorical debate based primarily on navel inspection.
In the same issue of the journal, Karla Hoff of the World Bank writes an incisive review of this paper and makes the following points: [Note 2]
1) A society is not just a random group of people living in a shared territory. A society is a group that shares cognitive frames and social norms.
2) Experiments in psychology and economics have demonstrated that in industrialized societies all over the world a substantial fraction of individuals will be fair in anonymous interactions and will punish unfairness. But it has never been clear whether this benevolent prosocial behavior depends on innate human psychology or norms peculiar to industrialized societies.
3) Henrich et al. show that prosocial behavior increases with the level of the society's market integration -- such integration measured as households' average percentage of calories that are purchased rather than self-grown.
4) The findings of Henrich et al. call into question the standard assumption in economics that preferences are innate and stable, and suggest instead that cultural conditioning of the expression of human selfishness is a part of the process of economic development.
Henrich et al. make the following important conclusion:
"Overall, these findings lend support to the idea that the evolution of societal complexity, especially as it has occurred over the last 10 millennia, involved the selective spread of those norms and institutions that best facilitated the successful exchange and interaction in socioeconomic spheres well beyond local networks of durable kin and reciprocity-based relationships."
Such is cultural evolution at work. Evolutionary psychology based on kin selection and reciprocity models of innate behavior seems headed for the dust bin.
Note 1: Henrich, J., et al. (2010). Science 327: 1480.
Note 2: Hoff, K. (2010). Science 327:1467.