I spent last Friday evening in friendly competition with other freethinkers, playing Bohnanza.
In this game, you try to farm more beans than anyone else by playing the right bean card at the right moment. What makes it interesting is that you can strategically trade cards with other players to get what you want. You can even donate them.
Why would you donate a card to an opponent? The reason explained to me (I was a first-time player) was that you must play your cards in the order they appear in your hand, so a donation can clear away a card that’s interfering with your optimal sequence.
Anyone who grew up with me knows that I like to win at games — especially strategy games. So it might come as a surprise that my first donation was simply because I saw that another player could profit from my card. It did me no immediate good whatsoever.
“Here you go,” I said. “No strings attached, but if you get the opportunity to give back, remember that you owe me one.”
Some of the more experienced players seemed taken aback.
But in fairly short order, my beneficiary donated a card to me. It was obvious to him and to everyone else that if one gained a reputation for reciprocating donations, then more donations might follow. If instead one greedily accepted donations but never repaid them, then the generosity would stop.
Other players started to make altruistic donations, too. In fact, they became commonplace. Without exception, this group of godless freethinkers were careful to repay their debts, even if they never asked for the debts in the first place. People wanted allies because even if a trade were time-delayed, not strictly obligatory, and maybe not exactly even, it still gave both parties an advantage they would not have had otherwise.
In the end, thanks to the faithful reciprocation of my friends, I won the game.
Thus did altruism emerge from selfishness, in this game as well as in life.