Friday, December 23, 2011

Altruism: The Third Alternative for Ecology and Evolution

Consider the following to be my holiday message to you. It is adapted from an essay I wrote for my website.

I recently read a book entitled The Penguin and the Leviathan, by Yochai Benkler, a leading scholar in business research. I have read many books about altruism, many of them by scientists such as Frans deWaal (The Age of Empathy), Dacher Keltner (Born to Be Good), and Martin Nowak (Super Cooperators). These books repeatedly make the point that individuals within animal species, individual humans, and businesses can profit from being nice and generous to others. Altruism, rather than violent competition, is the most important component of “the law of the jungle.” Just ask any of the chimps that deWaal has studied. The way to the top is primarily through cooperation, not violent competition. Even apes understand this. Benkler’s book is published by Crown Business, a division of a major New York publisher. Its intended audience is not science buffs but business leaders. In the title, the Penguin is Tux, the icon of Linux, whose business model is cooperation rather than top-down command, and the Leviathan is the cynical view of life presented centuries ago by Thomas Hobbes.

Benkler, though not a scientist, has done a very good job of summarizing the evolutionary science of altruism. But the thing that opened my eyes the most was that Benkler presented altruism as a third alternative for how a society could operate. The other two ways are state control and free market. We usually think that these are our only two choices. But, as Benkler explains, this is not true.

Both state control (as exemplified by dictators on the political right or the political left) and free market economics operate from the assumption that humans are fundamentally selfish. State control attempts to force people to not be selfish. The free market tries to capitalize upon those utterly selfish economic machines known as humans. But Benkler points out that altruism is a fundamental instinct of the human mind. As Michael Shermer said, it feels good to be good; humans enjoy being altruistic. Altruism motivates much of what we do.

Our only hope, from Benkler’s viewpoint, is to build our society and economic system in a way that facilitates altruism. Governments should not try to solve all social and economic problems by law and by creating big agencies; governments should be (in my words) conduits of the altruism that already exists in people’s minds. Governments should be altruism enablers. Similarly businesses should embrace altruism, appealing to their customers’ instincts to want to create a better world for everybody. Customers are selfish, but also altruistic. Customers are increasingly offended by corporations that display conspicuous selfishness; that assume the customers are merely selfish; or that use little greenwashing gimmicks to make themselves look environmentally friendly or socially altruistic. We customers are not stupid, nor are we totally selfish. We are (some of us more than others) partly altruistic and we expect our governments and businesses to also be altruistic.

Benkler makes the point that right now, when dictatorships are falling and the free market has proven ineffective enough that it has shaken the very faith of Alan Greenspan himself, is the time when altruism has a chance to influence the very structure of the economy and government. Governments and business CEOs have been good only at spending money, with disastrous consequences that nobody can ignore any longer.

Altruism, perhaps the greatest gift of evolution, is also the only way to solve our environmental problems. Neither of the other alternatives, government fiat or the profit motive by itself, have significantly deflected our worldwide momentum toward ecological disaster.

Joy to the world? Altruism? Maybe.


  1. Yes, this is a bit more hopeful because otherwise unbridled capitalism will be the end of us.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Let's hope altruism spreads.