A note on “selfish genes” and “altruism”

A note on “selfish genes” and “altruism” May 9, 2023


Toronto plane wreckage
Air France Airbus A340-300, flight number 358, one day after its crash at Toronto’s international airport in August 2005.
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image; Paul Cardin – Special Projects IR)


Dr. Mario Beauregard, a Canadian cognitive neuroscientist who is currently affiliated with the University of Arizona’s Department of Psychology, was a member of the faculty of the Université de Montréal when, with Denyse O’Leary, he wrote The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (New York City: Harper Collins, 2007).

On page 10 of The Spiritual Brain, Beauregard and O’Leary recount a story that I had forgotten about the terrible crash of an Air France airbus at Lester Pearson International Airport on Tuesday, 2 August 2005.  There was a torrential downpour that day, and the plane, which was carrying 309 people, overshot the runway and, as a consequence, burst into flames.

The Canadian minister of transportation was informed that approximately 200 people had perished in the disaster; the governor-general of Canada — Queen Elizabeth’s stand-in for Canada as a nation of the British Commonwealth — issued an official statement of heartfelt condolences to the families of the crash victims.

After the rain had stopped, though, and after the smoke had subsided, it was discovered that, although 43 passengers had suffered minor injuries, not a single person had died in the crash.

How was this possible?

In any situation like this, multiple factors are involved.  Following Beauregard and O’Leary, I will highlight just one.  The aircraft had come to a halt near Highway 401, Ontario’s main traffic artery.  Here’s what Mark Steyn had to say:

Passing motorists pulled off the road and hurried toward the burning jet to help any survivors.  Of the eight emergency exits, two were deemed unsafe to use, and on a third and a fourth the slides didn’t work.  Nonetheless, in a chaotic situation, hundreds of strangers coordinated sufficiently to evacuate a small space through four exits in less than a couple of minutes before the Airbus was consumed by flames.

Beauregard and O’Leary continue:

Many evacuated passengers were later picked up on the shoulder of the 401 and driven by strangers to Air France’s terminal.

So . . . hundreds of unrelated people who would never see each other again cooperated to ensure that all got out in time?  People offered rides to strangers from other parts of the world . . . ?

It’s a wonderful story, but it’s also a story that raises a very important question.  (And there are innumerable stories like it.)

Why would people do such things, why would people risk their lives, for complete strangers?  How does evolutionary psychology explain such actions?

Beauregard and O’Leary cite a comment about “altruism” from the science writer Mark Buchanan, writing in New Scientist:

In evolutionary terms it is a puzzle because any organism that helps others at its own expense stands at an evolutionary disadvantage.  So if many people really are true altruists, as it seems, why haven’t greedier, self-seeking competitors wiped them out?  (cited on page 9)

Theorists of evolutionary psychology have not shied away from the challenge.  (Whether their explanatory hypotheses are plausible, though, is quite another matter.)

Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, apparently believes that he has it figured out.  Altruism results from a wiring error in human brains, and evolution is wiping altruists out.  It simply hasn’t yet finished the job:

Our brains misfire when presented with a situation to which we have not evolved a response.  (cited on page 10)

Beauregard and O’Leary will have none of that, though, and they are impatient with the attempts of others to explain altruism away as actually, in every case, motivated by self-interest (sometimes of the most hyper-subtle and unobvious kind imaginable):

Of course, one can always construct a plausible story . . . to account for altruism as a self-seeking behavior, and many theorists have done so.  But surely it makes more sense to conclude that the Toronto strangers who took the risk of helping were not seeking any benefit, either for themselves or their descendants.  Nor is evolution somehow bogged down in the process of wiping them out.  Nor are their brains wired wrong.  Nor are they secretly benefiting in some way relative to passing motorists who do not help.  Evolutionary psychologists are simply looking in the wrong places to try to understand their behavior.  (page 11)

In his famous 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins popularized a “gene-centered” view of evolution, as opposed to alternative views that were focused on individual organisms or on groups of organisms:

We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. . . .

Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside. But genes are denizens of geological time: genes are forever.

The idea of the “selfish gene,” if not the phrase itself, had been developed during the 1960s by the British evolutionary theorist W. D. Hamilton and others.  The gene-centered view was thought able to account for such phenomena as the instinct of humans (and other animals) to care preferentially (even to the point of self-sacrifice) for their offspring.  According to this model, the more closely two individual organisms (including humans) are genetically related to each other, the more sense it makes (as seen from the genetic perspective) for them to behave cooperatively with each other.

Here’s how W. D. Hamilton himself put it, in his 1963 book The Evolution of Altruistic Behavior:

Despite the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’ the ultimate criterion which determines whether [a gene] G will spread is not whether the behavior is to the benefit of the behaver, but whether it is to the benefit of the gene G . . .  With altruism this will happen only if the affected individual is a relative of the altruist, therefore having an increased chance of carrying the gene.  (pages 354-355)

But genetic relationships and genetic “self-interest” cannot, by themselves, explain stories like that of the strangers on Ontario’s Highway 401 back in August 2005.


Edited to add:  Over at the aptly-named Peterson Obsession Board, a frequent commenter who goes by the moniker of “Dumb Dud” (or something of that sort) — one of the more hostile and more obsessively consistent readers of this blog, but also one of the consistently least competent of them — says that I’m claiming that the story of the August 2005 Air France crash (and the survival of all of its occupants) was a “miracle.”  I’m not, though.  I think it a remarkable story, but I don’t claim it to have been miraculous.  That’s not even remotely my point.



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