How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
Survival of the Fittest vs. Survival of the Species
We all face a dilemma that is programmed into our genes: do we focus on ourselves to the exclusion of others, or do we act socially? Here's how these forces play out.
The basic Darwinian principle of natural selection is effectively 'survival of the fittest', where individual creatures compete for food, mates and so on. This can be seen in selfishness, where we put ourselves first, sometimes to the total exclusion of others and, at its worst, using the Machivellian principle that the end justifies the means. In this approach, we conclude that if other people suffer as we pursue our personal goals, then this is not really our problem.
This leads to the law of the jungle, of dog-eat-dog, where personal strength and power are the source of survival and success. While societies may still exist where this is the basic rule, they tend to be dictatorships, set up to support the powerful and subjugate the workers.
Perhaps more Darwinian than survival of the individually fittest is the thought that it is more important for evolution that the species survives. If selfishness divides, causes conflict and and kills collaboration, then individuals are effectively at war with the species, removing competitors and hoarding resources for their own use. In its eventual form, this leads to a fragile system that cannot cope with change (as perhaps has been seen in some companies).
Yet we are a social species and can be very altruistic. We have found along the way that working together helps us in many ways, from sharing resources to playing to one another's strengths. We will help strangers and even sacrifice ourselves for the greater good. This is the genetic force for survival of the species that we have developed over time.
A notable problem is that the forces for survival of the fittest can overwhelm survival of the species, for example in engendering greed or fear that obstructs social support. Nevertheless the human species is still surviving, which suggests that some balance between the two is working. indeed, when we get too fond of others we may be unable to take hard decisions when longer-term survival of the species is at stake.
Between survival of the individual and the species is a closer focus on family and friends. While we may not be generous with strangers, we will do a lot for those closer to us. And the closer they are, the more we will go out of our way to help them. This helps many of us find some balance between selfishness and social concern.
'Kin selection' is seen in many forms, from nepotism to sometimes excessive support we give to our children. The evolutionary benefit is survival of our genes, or at least a close copy. In choosing our friends, we go for 'people like us' who are likely to come from a close gene pool.
The bottom line is that the choice between self or others as the beneficiary of our actions is not an easy choice. We certainly do want to individually survive, and indeed thrive, yet we are programmed also to care for others and go out of our way to act socially.
For many of us, this is still a tension and we default more to selfishness than selflessness. To compensate for this, a mechanism that has arisen is the principle of values and social norms, of mutually agreed rules that govern how we act and which promote loyalty and pro-social actions, for example in helping the vulnerable. Failure to comply with these rules is typically punishable by lowering one's social status or even ostracizing the person.
And when social rules are not enough, national laws and other rules compensate for selfish tendencies, forcing us to act for the greater good, even when we might not individually choose to do so.