Altruism and Selfishness

Mandelbrot Set

A Very Small Portion of the Mandelbrot Set

The world is full of marvels, but among the most wondrous are those that arise mysteriously from seemingly unrelated things.A tree grows from dirt, water and sunshine. A simple equation gives birth to the infinitely complex Mandelbrot set. The varying frequencies of light-waves are perceived as colors. Perhaps the most amazing is the subject of this post: selfishness giving birth to altruism.

Several people have asked me how altruism could possibly arise in a Darwinian world of ruthless competition. The best answer I can give is to recommend Richard Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene. (You can read a Wikipedia summary here). His basic idea is that the unit of evolution — the unit that mutates and reproduces — is not the individual, but the gene. A gene that programs its host to sacrifice his own life to save the lives of ten of his close relatives who also carry that gene will be more reproductively successful than a gene that programs for survival of the individual only.

To put it in terms of the book’s title, the gene’s selfish desire to make copies of itself gives rise to unselfish behavior in the organisms that host it. What an elegant explanation of altruism! And what a marvel!

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