Does Altruism Exist

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* Book: David Sloan Wilson. Does Altruism Exist.


The Alternative Heterodox Lineage in Evolutionary Thought and Its Emphasis on the Role of Consciousness

Zak Stein and Marc Gafni:

"Wilson’s Does Altruism Exist comes as a welcome and succinct statement of recent advances in a host of evolutionary sciences. Many of the ideas are presented as “new paradigm,” and this is indeed the case. What we would like to note here that this “new paradigm” is actually better thought of as an alternative lineage of evolutionary thinking, which has been around since before Darwin ever boarded the Beagle.

(Note 1: This is slightly overstated, but the point holds that this tradition goes back to Hegel (and he draws his linage to Heraclius, perhaps the first theorist of evolutionary process). The post-Darwinian players include Darwin himself in many moods, Lamarck, James Mark Baldwin, C. S. Peirce, Julian Huxley, Bergson, Whitehead, Jantsch, Prigogine, Kauffman, Wilber, Hubbard, and Lazlo. One might also include those with more explicit religious bents, such as the great Zionist and mystical scholar Rabbi Abraham Kook, the Indian freedom fighter and age Sri Aurobindo, and the Jesuit scientist and seer, Teilhard De Chardin. This is the tradition or lineage in which the authors of this contribution place themselves. We are each affiliated with the Center for Integral Wisdom and the Foundation of Conscious Evolution, which are organizations that see their chief aim as the deepening of this intellectual lineage and its delivery into culture.)

Keeping with Wilson’s epistemology of equivalence, we suggest rekindling the respect and attention that was once paid to certain alterative frameworks that broke off from the Darwinian mainstream — alternatives with just as many insights (and just as many liabilities). This is only to say that absent in Wilson’s narrative about human evolution, multilevel selection, and emergent super-organisms is a scholarly tradition that has made its legacy by focusing on the role of consciousness in evolution, as well as the role of humanity’s self-consciousness as a factor in future evolution. The idea being that humanity is continuing evolution by new means. This group has basically been arguing for or assuming the existence of Wilson’s new paradigm phenomena from day one of the evolutionary discourse. This is a group that never worshiped Darwin, although some did in passing or in youth, rather they explored evolutionary events and systems with alternative but equally scientific frameworks.

This is a tradition that focused more explicitly on interiors and on consciousness, on the role of psychological process in evolution. Long at the center of this alternative discourse has been the idea of the emergence of super-organisms, which functionally integrate lower-order parts, lessening within group selection pressure, to make the many into one, and thus foster the evolution of a new organismic totality. This led many to suggest the (inevitable?) emergence of some kind of new evolutionary event— a super-organism of humans. The idea has very, very old roots, to which Wilson only alludes by way of reference to the Fable of The Bees. Wilson is more interested to argue that, now, with new evidence, we finally really know that, for example, cooperation can have an impact on evolution via group selection, even as it seems counter intuitive to cooperate at the level of individual selection. Kropotkin said as much in his 1902, Mutual Aid, and offered similar kinds of evidence in his field reports (just to give mention of a conspicuously missing name in Wilson’s account). Like the anarchist prince and biologist Kropotkin, the concern of many of the heterodox evolutionists has long been with outlining preferable human futures in light of evolutionary principles and trajectories. What are of concern to this group most are not the mechanisms by which such emergent forms arise, but rather the ethical and existential implications of the inevitable occurrence of emergence at the level of the human. That is, what would it mean for our humanity if we become swept up into a super-organism, as if becoming cells organized for the benefit of some larger organelle?


Heterodox evolutionists never took these questions off the table, especially those looking at the role of human self-consciousness as a factor in evolution. This tradition spent more time looking into the implications of evolutionary thinking for the self-understanding of the species, and less time working with models of mechanisms and exteriorities. So the question of whether altruism exists is not as interesting to us as questions about the many forms of selfless behavior, as well as the higher levels of moral development individuals can attain while “becoming a part of something larger than themselves.

(Note: This is the crux of the issue: not all forms of group cohesion and efficiency should be seen as signs of evolution, nor as advancing justice and humanity, especially victories in violent competitions between groups. Wilson notes that a planetary civilization would have no other civilizations to compete with, and thus there is no survival function to decide the “fitness” of humanity as a whole. This is precisely the point. Survival and efficiency at the group level cannot be taken simply as ends in themselves. If we can’t use simple victory and survival as an index of the evolutionary fitness of a society, then what can we use? Group selection between societies to this point in history has been “might makes right,” as warfare and economic domination have been the primary means by which certain societies have survived and others have passed away. Wilson notes the role of war in-group selection only once (and yet his first example of a superorganism is an aircraft carrier, and he frequently mentions jumping on grenades as a kind of altruism). Needless to say, the unification of humanity into a single global village is an abstraction, but nevertheless, the coagulation of globalization does hold the specter of a world in which there are mass extinctions of cultures and we are left with no alternatives but those of the global victors. This is why protesters take to the street to defy the World Bank and IMF, who they see as closing off futures for alterative societies and cultures, leading us to a steady state society where there are at last no competitions between different ways of life.)

The most recent work in this tradition has refined the phenomenology of moral consciousness associated with evolutionary emergence in human groups, especially with regards to the balance between what Wilson calls (unfortunately) “selfishness” and “altruism.” We call them autonomy and communion. Too much of either and any group is pathological. Too much communion and you get a kind of totalitarianism or coercive fascism. Too much autonomy and you get narcissists and rouges, lawlessness and violence (like the wolves of Wall Street Wilson laments). To make a long story short: heterodox evolutionists who have been concerned with the future role of self-consciousness as a factor in evolution have found that the keystone concept needed for thinking about the future of human evolution is that of uniqueness. It is one of the few keystone concepts that can bridge the gap between interiors and exteriors, science and ethics, matter and sprit. And it is the ideal keystone concept to orient the strivings of the only planetary keystone species."



* Article/Conference: Social Justice and Superorganisms: On The Moral Phenomenology of Participating in The Evolution of The Cosmos. Supplemental contribution for the roundtable discussion of David Sloan Wilson’s, Does Altruism Exist. Zak Stein Marc Gafni. The Center for Integral Wisdom, Summer, 2015