Reengineering Human Nature: Selfishness

The Problem: Nearly all the world’s religions teach that we should be generous to the poor and needy, and warn that greed and selfishness are destructive sins. “For the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).

But this principle is rarely honored, even by the religious leaders who supposedly believe it. Catholic popes and bishops, as well as many Protestant preachers and televangelists, live in opulence and luxury and possess vast amounts of wealth: ornate mansions, private jets, multiple homes filled with art and treasure. Preachers of the “prosperity gospel” teach that God wants to make all their followers rich. Meanwhile, on the secular side, there are libertarians and acolytes of Ayn Rand who teach that selfishness is an unmitigated good and that all taxation and social programs are equivalent to theft and slavery. These influential apostles of greed have attracted huge followings and have contributed to a vast and growing gap between the world’s rich and the world’s poor.

The Solution: Clearly, the majority of human beings prefer getting to giving. But this isn’t an ironclad law of human nature: Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest had the custom of potlatch, where a person’s standing in the tribe was set by how much wealth they could give away, not by how much they had for themselves. There are also modern philosophers like Peter Singer, who’s argued that everyone should give away a quarter of their income or more to charity and who follows through on this principle in his own life; and businessmen like Warren Buffett, who’s pledged to donate nearly all his multibillion-dollar fortune to charity. Examples like this are rare, but they do exist.

The traits of selfishness and greed are part of human nature, but the degree to which they’re expressed is affected by the surrounding culture (the same is true, of course, for altruism and generosity). But there’s no reason why the set point has to be where it is. Just as David Hume imagined the possibility of all human beings naturally being as diligent and industrious as the most devoted among us are now, we can imagine a world where human beings are naturally as generous as the most generous among us are now; a world where altruism is the norm, and cultures that value selfishness and greed are as rare as potlatch is in our world. Our brains could be wired so that giving away, rather than acquiring, is what gives us the most pleasure.

The Real Explanation: Human nature is forged by evolution, and in evolutionary terms, the success of the individual is all; more specifically, the success of the individual’s genes. In a world of scarce resources, which describes the environment of our ancestors, there’s little evolutionary benefit to extreme generosity, and potentially a strong benefit for selfishness. If my genes motivate me to give away resources I could have used for my own survival and reproduction, then I’ll be less likely to survive and less likely to reproduce, and those genes thus will bring about their own disappearance from the gene pool. On the other hand, if my genes motivate me to be selfish and acquisitive and to get as much as possible for myself and my descendants, I’ll be more likely to survive and to have healthy children, who will inherit my selfish genes and propagate them into the next generation.

Granted, this isn’t the whole story. In a social species, it may benefit me to give away valuable resources to other members of my tribe from time to time. If I have more than I need and give away some of my extra (food, clothes, tools, shelter, mates), the recipient of my gift will owe me a favor, which I may be able to cash in some day when I’m in need. The potential benefits of this reciprocal altruism laid the evolutionary foundations for humans’ sense of generosity. But all else being equal, evolution will always reward the individuals who keep as much as possible for themselves, which explains the dominance of our selfish side.

Other posts in this series:

So Wrong For So Long: On Liberal Biblical Reinterpretation
SF/F Saturday: The Half-Made World
Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand on Mike Wallace
Marital Rape in the Bible
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X