Where Does Good Come From?

05/30/2011 01:39 pm ET | Updated Jul 30, 2011

"There is no altruism" she said with conviction, "it's all about self interest." A year later the dinner argument still bugs me. The corporate executive took the position that there is no such thing as selfless concern for others. She made the case that altruism is disguised or, at best, englightened self interest. Having been around educators my whole life, I knew she was wrong.

Where does good come from? It's an interesting question explored by Leon Neyfakh on where he reviews E.O. Wilson's upcoming book (a link found thanks to polymath Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution). Wilson, the author of science classics including Consilience, is trying late in his influential career to overturn a central plank of established evolutionary theory: the origins of altruism.

His new argument, in a nutshell, amounts to a frontal attack on long-accepted ideas about one of the great mysteries of evolution: why one creature would ever help another at its own expense. Natural selection means that the fittest pass down their genes to the next generation, and every organism would seem to have an overwhelming incentive to survive and reproduce. Yet, strangely, self-sacrifice exists in the natural world, even though it would seem to put individual organisms at an evolutionary disadvantage: The squirrel that lets out a cry to warn of a nearby predator is necessarily putting itself in danger. How could genes that lead to such behavior persist in a population over time? It's a question that bedeviled even Charles Darwin, who considered altruism a serious challenge to his theory of evolution.

Some scientists have posited a "kinship" theory, the procreation instinct to promote the gene pool. Neyfakh explains that Wilson broke ranks with this view:

The alternative theory holds that the origins of altruism and teamwork have nothing to do with kinship or the degree of relatedness between individuals. The key, Wilson said, is the group: Under certain circumstances, groups of cooperators can out-compete groups of non-cooperators, thereby ensuring that their genes -- including the ones that predispose them to cooperation -- are handed down to future generations. This so-called group selection, Wilson insists, is what forms the evolutionary basis for a variety of advanced social behaviors linked to altruism, teamwork, and tribalism.

The science of altruism. The biological argument in favor of altruism is complicated (evidence by arguments about the underlying predictive math models). But those "those who would like to think there's room in nature for a more genuine form of altruism" find Wilson's new stance appealing.

Two weeks ago, David Brooks reviewed the work of Jonathan Haidt who argues humans are the giraffes of altruism. "Just as giraffes got long necks to help them survive, humans developed moral minds that help them and their groups succeed. Humans build moral communities out of shared norms, habits, emotions and gods, and then will fight and even sometimes die to defend their communities."

Brooks continues, "For decades, people tried to devise a rigorous "scientific" system to analyze behavior that would be divorced from morality. But if cooperation permeates our nature, then so does morality, and there is no escaping ethics, emotion and religion in our quest to understand who we are and how we got this way."

There appears to be some neurobiological evidence of a physiological inclination toward altruism, at least there are some neurological rewards that support altruistic behaviors--it feels good to do good.

More anecdotally, many of us that have pursued both financial and social impact have found contribution more rewarding than extraction. There is wisdom to the New Testament adage, 'tis better to give than receive.

The role of faith. Most faith traditions construct communities that promote delayed gratification, a sense of empathy, and altruistic behavior. Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen called it "obedience practiced together." Altruistic behaviors may originate as a salvation-seeking bargain that drives a sense of duty (an inclination related to altruism) but it is clear that many mature in their faith have fully incorporated 'service over self' (as my friends at Rotary say) as creed and practice.

It's fair to say that selflessness has bizarre extremes embodied in radical agendas (e.g., terrorism, cults) but the larger challenges for American society are narcissism, complacency and narrow mindedness. Children reared in a community that values service and practices altruism stand a better chance of becoming happy, healthy, contributing citizens.

Many educators embody altruism, they carry heavy burdens and sacrifice for a community's benefit. The same can be said of members of the military. Memorial day is a time to remember all those that gave the ultimate sacrificed for the common good.

The altruism of leadership. In his recent book, Jon Ronson suggests that a few successful business leaders are psychopaths and devoid of empathy. That may be true, but leaders that help to create lasting social impact must possess empathy at scale. Not an activity of self-interest, leadership emanates from personally felt need in a spirit of service.

Let's admit that human motivations are complex -- particularly the motivations of those that choose to lead. The most mission-oriented leaders are at least partially driven by financial and reputational needs. While motivations may be complex, social impact leaders have a clear sense of mission. They allow needs and gifts to guide intense reflection and stir personal conviction. They change what needs to be changed, seek to meet unmet needs, and strive to make a difference.

Leading is about getting things done, more specifically, helping others get things done. It is about leaving things better than they were, about bringing more people along to a better place. That is altruism.