The following essay is recycled from my website entry dated April 16, 2009.
Evolution is not “survival of the fittest.” Preachers like to portray evolution as bloody and merciless, favoring the powerful and violent animals over the weak and benign. But this picture is incorrect. Although evolution sometimes produces violence, it more often produces altruism in the world of animals. Altruism is when one animal is nice to another animal of the same species.
Evolution produces altruism in three ways. First, natural selection favors animals that help their close relatives to reproduce—for in this way, the animal can indirectly pass its genes into the next generation. The love of parents for children is biological, and is found in birds and mice as well as in humans. Second, natural selection favors direct reciprocity, in which an animal does something nice for another animal, in anticipation of getting the favor returned in the future. Third, natural selection favors indirect reciprocity, in which an animal (always a human animal, as far as we know) does something nice for another animal that cannot possibly ever return the favor—and thereby receives greater social status and esteem. We admire rich, generous donors. Animals—especially human animals—invest in “social capital”: having friends and admirers is usually better than having money in the bank.
Altruism was perhaps the most important process in human evolution. Our species existed as tribes. These tribes usually fought one another, but within each tribe there was a lot of altruism. The chief of the tribe enjoyed some benefits not available to other tribal members, but was not much richer than they, and did not enslave them or take all of their resources away from them. The primary reason they did not do this is because they would have to look their fellow tribesmen in the eye while doing it.
But with the beginning of civilization, altruism began to fall apart. Kings could enslave poor people or take all of their riches away from them. In a large city-state or empire, the king could hide in his throne-room and did not have to look his victims in the eye. Democracy began partly as a way of destroying the power of kings to do this. Today, very few kings remain and those few are primarily ornamental. Dictators may briefly get away with such behavior. But right here in the United States, rich people are able to oppress poor people in a way not very different from the way kings treated their slaves. Rich people today can take the life savings away from their victims while hiding in boardrooms and mansions, just as kings could hide in their palaces.
If only the rich people who caused the financial crisis in America, and which has spread around the world, could be made to look their victims in the eye! Maybe then they would be unable to walk off with millions of dollars of money from the federal government and from their investors, and altruism would return to our society.