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:

You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
Is Terrorism Courageous?
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
About Adam Lee

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

  • WhatPaleBlueDot

    But evolution isn’t about the individual. It’s about the genes. And, sometimes it’s “better” for the genes if the social group persists, not the individual. We’ve reached a place in our social development, however, where we’ve expanded our concept of social group to include those we aren’t closely related to. That’s not evolutionary, per se.

    But, exceptional generosity requires exceptional resources. These are resources far beyond what one individual (even one individual mating with untold other individuals and raising untold offspring) could use in a “natural” environment, sometimes even in our contemporary environment. These generally are not individuals sacrificing their ability to survive in toto to give to another. These are individuals sacrificing excess to give. As such, it is a social sacrifice, but not necessarily an evolutionary sacrifice. But, considering how we react to such sacrifices and how much adulation is proffered on those who give exceptionally (especially that proffered by females on males who give exceptionally), it is most certainly not an evolutionary sacrifice.

  • Tim

    While I’m not a Randroid, I do understand the basis of the thought. Essentially, the definition of “selfishness” is fundamentally different than how it’s generally applied. In objectivist selfishness, it is argued that the fundamental cause of any action is based on self-desire. Nothing precludes charitable giving, but the reasons for doing so are questioned. That is, don’t claim it’s a moral obligation or a necessary requirement of a person to help their neighbors. Instead, if the prospect of helping another brings you joy or happiness, do so. If it doesn’t, then don’t.

    I think the notion that taxation is theft goes a bit off the deep end, though I certainly have friends who ascribe to that philosophy. Tax and the funded social programs are no more than coercive institutions when they are implemented via threat of imprisonment. However, without a meaningful way by which to opt-out (that is, pay nothing in, get none of the benefits), there is certainly a line where I find taxation acceptable as a function of the benefits offered by our country’s social construct.

    Nothing in this philosophy advocates greed, and the conflation of selfish action (actions positively benefiting the self) with greedy actions (hording more than is actively needed, often at the expense of another) is disingenuous at best, intentionally misleading at worst. A selfish action can very well be one that helps another, as you later get to when discussing the evolutionary benefit of social generosity. I avoid the word altruism, because it involves the concept of doing an act selflessly, which I find bogus. People do things because they feel better or think it’s right or they find some benefit in doing the action, even if it’s the unconscious, evolution-borne desire for offspring to continue gene propagation.

  • colluvia.

    It’s important to remember that a cooperating group of humans is vastly more effective than non-cooperating individuals. Keeping that in mind, it’s possible to extend the boundaries of selfishness to be not only me but also all those in my cooperative group. Seen this way, it’s advantageous for me to assist others because not only does it increase their fitness and their ability to return the favor, it also elevates me in the eyes of others in my group and increases the chance that they will lend me more assistance should I need it. Even helping total strangers can be seen as a selfish act because it may win me additional friends. For a social species, acts of apparent altruism may simply be wise investments.

  • Ron

    Re: Potlatches.

    I may be mistaken about the following:

    My understanding of potlatches is that they were anything but generous. As far as I know, they were a form of banking for the aboriginals. Also, they could be devastating to the gift recipients. When a gift was given to an attendee, as far as I know, that person was then put under an obligation to give a return gift of at least equal, and probably greater value. Thus the giver invested in the recipients. I may be misinformed on this, don’t recall where I encountered this idea.

  • Hendy

    Silly side-note question. Could you post any references to the wealth of Catholic clergy and/or the organization as a whole? I used to hear this a lot and looked it up a ways back and at least couldn’t seem to validate that the Church as a whole was hoarding the billions of which they’re often accused. I was just curious. Thanks!

  • Ric

    Ostentatious displays of generosity are evolutionarily advantageous in the same way ostentatious displays of wealth are. They are a form of self-handicapping, which serves to advertise an individual’s fitness much the same way a peacock’s tail does. It says “Look at how genetically fit I am. I can afford to give away a lot of wealth and still remain top dog.”

  • Zietlos

    Hendy: I can’t give you an exact, but remember that most of the vatican is made of solid gold, amazingly expensive art, diamonds and other gemstones, as well as being prime real estate. It isn’t paper money, but assets, but still if the pope lived less lavishly (IE Didn’t own an entire city made of gold all to himself), as one comedian proposed, you could feed the entire world for several years from the proceeds.

  • Hendy

    @Zietlos: I can definitely see your points about real estate and art. I suppose it would still be awesome to have even a wild guess based on quantity and quality as to an estimated worth.

    I would add that I doubt that ‘most of the vatican is made of solid gold.’ Don’t you think that’s a bit extreme? If we’re talking about the building, I would imagine that the quantity of stone, mortar, marble and other structurally supporting features outdoes ‘solid gold’ in mass and volume. If we’re talking about the city/country, any minute quantity of travel/electrical/water/sewage infrastructure seems like it would propose a strong rival to solid gold components as well. I’m open to being wrong!

    I’m all for finding out how rich the Catholic Church is (or isn’t). But, regardless of the outcome only factual claims will present any viable basis for evaluation, assertions, accusations, or reprimands. We do each other a favor when supporting factual accountability.

  • valhar2000

    Well, Hendy, attempting to place a value on the real-state the Church owns could be difficult. You can do so for many of the churches they own in American cities, for example, but how could you do so for the Vatican? That depends on how much people, on average, would be willing to pay for it if it were for sale, but who would ever seriously bid on it?

  • Ebonmuse

    It’s a good question about the wealth of the Catholic church. I don’t think they’ve ever thrown open their books to outsiders; but this article, from Time in 1965, estimated the Vatican’s net worth at between $10 and $15 billion. If we take the lower end of that estimate and assume there’s been no growth in that amount other than to keep up with inflation, that would make them worth about $69 billion today.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Inre Catholic extravagance:

    … The best known of the new religious institutions is the $189-million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.

    [Emphasis added]

    The prices for some cathedral furnishings have also caused great consternation. $5M was budgeted for the altar or “table” — essentially a giant slab of Rosso Laguna marble. The main bronze doors cost $3M. $2M was budgeted for the wooden ambo (lectern), and $1M for a very controversial tabernacle. $1M for the cathedra (bishop’s chair). $250K for the presider’s chair. $250K for each deacon’s chair. Visiting bishops’ chairs cost $150K each, while pews cost an average of $50K each. The cantor’s stand cost $100K while each bronze chandelier/speaker cost $150K.[6] The great costs incurred in its construction and Mahony’s long efforts to get it built led critics to dub it the “Taj Mahony”.

    [Forgive the wiki cite? It was most convenient, and I'm having troubles on my end with getting in here.]

    That bishop’s chair is three years’ salary.

  • Hendy

    @valhar: very good points. Demand is a very tough gauge, especially when there’s no real precedent for a purchase of its kind@

    @Ebon/Thumpalumpacus: thanks. Thump, those are wonderful figures to know and just reading through that does make one cringe! What could be done for hunger with a more ‘modest’ selection of a chair? Most of the money comes from donations, correct? I wonder what the ‘lay people’ think when they see their years of donation basket offerings come through the door in the form of a 4-6′ piece of marble…

    This will be off topic… but it would be fascinating to find out the effects of ornateness vs. plainness in the beliefs of a given congregation and things along these lines. I read somewhere a great note about how given god’s omniscience, the ‘rituals’ created are to essentially give the illusion the people are ‘doing’ anything at all. Same for the garments. We seem to need a distinguishing feature to set some individuals as special channelers of the divine.

    Anyway, it is a unappealing thought indeed to consider that not only is such extravagant money being spent on chairs, doors, and tables… but it’s being done precisely to create an environment where belief will not be challenge. ‘If they’ve spent all this to create a beautiful house for god, it can’t be false!’ Not that this would be on the conscious level exactly…

    Sorry to derail things… thanks for providing some leads to pursue.

  • Erich Vieth

    Ebonmuse: Your comment that most humans prefer “getting to giving” caught my attention. I feel compelled to put that conclusion in this context: I agree with your characterization with regard to human behavior toward members of outgroups. With regard to ingroups, however, human empathy and cooperation dominate the landscape (though I admit that there is also quite a bit of self-centered behavior even among ingroups). This observation that humans shouldn’t be too quickly categorized as purely selfish beings is a point made forcefully by Primatologist Frans De Waal terms in his book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. I posted a bit on this issue here:

  • keddaw

    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.

    Indeed, however humans do not function as evolutionary machines. We have intelligence that we use to make judgements that give little regard to the survival of our genes in future generations.

    I have no plans to have children, which technically makes me an evolutionary dead-end, however I see the proliferation of my ideas as being infinitely more important than my genes.

    Writing a book has more effect on the future of humanity than having a child.

  • Francesc

    You are over-simplifying the benefits of generosity in a social species.
    We have to remember that usually the groups are formed by family related individuals. So helping the group you are also helping your own genes. Moreover, a healthy group is safer for their individual members. Imagine two groups of chimps “fighting” for a territory, probably the larger one will win. It doesn’t matter at all that recently our human groups are not at all family bounded, generosity is also in our gene pool.

    Moreover, a certain level of shelfisness is obviously good for the individual, but it’s not always good for the group. Those groups who expell the extremely shelfiss individuals are probably going to have more success, or those who expell the “cheater” in general (the individuals too agressive, the killers, the laziest ones…). We do have a certain repell for those kind of individuals, imagine a friend who usually lies, probably he won’t have a lot of friends. Same for the one who is too selfish.

    Sumarizing, we also have social genes wich balance with the selfish ones.

    (P.S.: Probably those are the same ideas Dawkins expressed far better in some of his books
    P.S.II: I’m I wrong, or as a social species natural selection may not only act over us individually, but upon our groups?)

  • Scotlyn

    I just thought I would point out, a propos of OP, that Kim Stanley Robinson’s wonderful “Mars” trilogy contains (apart from a rippingly good story) some very interesting thinking on alternative economic solutions in the context of an environment of such limited resources as those of his imagined Mars (but with obvious parallels to our increasingly limited growth options on earth). His depiction of traders trying to outdo one another in the value of what they give rather than what they get, is both humourous and credible.

  • Erich Vieth

    To follow up regarding my comment above, I’m not convinced that evolution always rewards those who are “selfish.” David Sloan Wilson asks what would happen if you put a “good” person and a “bad” person together on an island? The clear answer is that goodness tends to be inherently vulnerable to evil. But what happens when you put a GROUP of good people together on an island far away from another island containing only a GROUP of “evil” people. In this latter case, the group of good people thrive whereas the group of evil people will self-destruct. In other words, groups of good people survive better than groups of “evil” people. Wilson was making the point that evolution can explain the “full spectrum of human behavior,” not just the dog eat dog imagery so often associated with natural selection.

    I am persuaded by the work of David Sloan Wilson. Neither he nor am suggesting that natural selection is somehow in error. Rather, natural selection successfully explains the real-world complexity that I see with my eyes, a real world where thriving societies are generally not driven, day to day, by the principle of dog-eat-dog. Natural selection appears to play out differently in individuals versus societies. Further, cooperation appears to be an extremely clever survival tactic that dovetails seamlessly with natural selection.

  • DormantDragon

    Tim, you said,

    Nothing in this philosophy advocates greed, and the conflation of selfish action (actions positively benefiting the self) with greedy actions (hording more than is actively needed, often at the expense of another) is disingenuous at best, intentionally misleading at worst.

    I think it’s useful to draw a distinction between self-interest (acting in ways which ultimately bring benefit to me and mine) and selfishness (expectation of benefits greater than my desert, measured against my input).

    Based upon such a distinction, it’s socially and morally acceptable to act in ways that bring personal rewards – whether such rewards bring material gain, social gain, or emotional satisfaction, provided such rewards are achieved commensurate with the effort I have applied to gain them. And it’s okay that said efforts are motivated by the prospect of gain. This is self-interest – consideration of self in equal measure with others – and it should not, in my view, be seen as reprehensible, but rather as perfectly natural.

    If, however, I seek rewards that are far beyond the level of effort I intend to apply, or are gained at unjust cost to others, that is selfishness – consideration of self at the expense of others. Again, in my view, this is neither morally nor socially acceptable.