Does Altruism Exist? A Conversation with Evolutionary Biologist, David Sloan Wilson
Altruism gets a bad rap in the US. Concerning ourselves with the welfare of others, extending empathy to all citizens here and in other countries, and looking at humanity as one diverse, if complex, collective is something some of us give much lip service to while leading their self-concerned busy lives, and others actively try to squash if it means their small piece of the pie might be nibbled at.
Regarding both political and religious institutions, altruism is at best a Utopian fantasy or at worse – as so-called libertarians who embrace the philosophy of Ayn Rand – dangerous and an abomination. Even scientists working in various fields – especially evolutionary psychologists – argue that altruism is not what it seems to be, and that true altruism as we tend to think about it does not exist in the human animal.
But others disagree, and disagree strongly. Among scientists who have written in favor of pure altruism are primatologist Franz De Waal, neuroscientist Donald Pfaff, bioethicist Peter Singer, anthropologist Christopher Boehm, physicist Stefan Klein, psychologist Dacher Keltner, biopsychologist Nigel Barber, evolutionary anthropologist Douglas Fry, and today’s guest, biologist David Sloan Wilson — author of Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others.
We are a culture besieged by violence. Everyday we hear stories of mass shootings or stabbings, of a rising violent crime rate, of vigilantism, and we have been marred in one war or another since the birth of this nation… resulting in the maiming or killing of millions (usually far less Americans than those we target).
When peace activists, humanists, or even average citizens – tired of all the violence and war – try to speak out against the insanity, we are told human beings are violent by nature. We are shown right-leaning works of social science which prove our bloody history to be the norm, not an anomaly, and told it goes back 50,000 years or more. We are told that war is either in our genes, or even something which is needed for homo sapien sapien to have balance in our societies. Even those who admit “war is hell” are pretty sure it is also inevitable; consequently they, and many in our society, feel those of us looking toward a peaceful, egalitarian, humanistic society without warfare are utopians living in a reality of our own inception… peaceniks left over from the radical 60s who have not grown up and who would be better served trying to help others within our current, often dysfunctional society, rather than demand another kind of world…
But what are humans REALLY like? What does the science ACTUALLY say? We will be speaking with evolutionary anthropologist Douglas Fry and psychologist Darcia Narvaez about these questions and more on the next edition of Equal Time for Freethought!
“On Human Nature and the Potential for Peace” w/ Anthropologist Douglas Fry
This program aired in honor of Universal Peace Day!
A few weeks ago on Equal Time for Freethought, Arnell Dowret interviewed two social scientists and a bio-engineer on the validity and importance of social science – what it can tell us about human nature, whether or not it was a rigorous enough a science to inform us on how to develop healthier societies, and if all the recent attacks on it by skeptics, evolutionary psychologists, and indeed some social scientists, have been deserved or not. It is perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that by the end of the program, the validity of the social sciences had been fairly proven – with all due respect to the bio-engineer participant.
Still, if my experience discussing social science and human nature – particularly with regards to violence, warlike behavior, authoritarianism and selfishness – with scientifically and politically serious people on Facebook is any indication on where many people today stand on the validity of social science… things look weak at best for those defending sciences like sociology, anthropology and psychology.
And while I have found, without much surprise, that most people who reject social science tend to be political centrists, conservatives or r-libertarians, I have also found what seems to be a deep suspicion of the merits of these sciences even from those left of center. – Barry F. Seidman
Douglas P. Fry teaches in the Faculty of Social and Caring Sciences at Abo Akademi University in Finland and is an adjunct research scientist in the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at the University of Arizona. A renowned anthropologist and a leading authority on aggression, conflict, and conflict resolution, he has worked in this field for over twenty-five years and has published many articles and books on this subject. His latest text is ‘Beyond War: The Human Potential For Peace.’
This program aired on WBAI on July 26th and August 2nd, but the full audio can be found here!
Humanism requires unselfish behavior and human cooperation for it to relevant to the future of human society. It has become popular – perhaps as a backlash to the 1960s liberal strides – to think of humans as selfish, greedy and uber-competitive… A Hobbesian take on human nature which has been promoted to justify dangerous economic systems such as capitalism, as well as authoritarian fascist states such as the Bush Administration has been taking us toward.
Some scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers and Stephen Pinker, while not backing the latter, have backed the former, and now claim that science backs such draconian perceptions of our basic nature.
Others haven’t made such claims.
Continue reading “Show 186a: Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior”
Fund Drive Program: Religion, Science, Dubya and the “Selfish Gene”
Audio 1 here!
Audio 2 here!
For this special fund drive program, we will be traveling along the crossroads of religion and science, and chatting a bit about the relevance of science for a progressive understanding of political activism, and we will perhaps delve a bit into how science may become politicized, even subtly.
Joining me today for this special program will be my associate producer, Arnell Dowret, and hosts’ Neil Murphy and Sunsara Taylor, and also a special appearance from Dr. Reg.
We will be offering as a gift for your new or renewed membership to WBAI, a special presentation by evolutionary biologist Niles Eldredge recorded on CD for us by the World Can’t Wait group, and also Dr. Eldredge’s latest trade paperback, “Why We Do It: Rethinking Sex and the Selfish Gene.” This book responds to what I said before about subtle politicizing of science… that is, when scientists offer seemingly apolitical information on human nature, such as E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, Richard Dawkins’ “selfish-gene” model of evolution, or Stephen Pinker’s nature over nurture arguments a la “evolutional psychology,” are they sailing beyond science toward dangerously political waters? Dr. Eldredge seems to think they are.