Deep down inside you, why do you ever do anything for anyone else that costs you more than you get from it? From giving a dollar to a homeless person to jumping on a live grenade in battle, why do people do it? Answers through the ages have tended to range from the spiritual (saintliness) to the psychological (mom taught you to share) to the sociological (you are part of the team), and in all cases there’s the sense that in some way you consciously wanted to do the right thing.
Lately evolution science has been tackling this big question, which is quite a challenge to the layman’s “survival of the fittest” understanding of Darwin and his successors. And, as I understand from David Sloan Wilson’s Does Altruism Exist: Culture, Genes and the Welfare of Others, your conscious will to act altruistically is not as important as the fact you are a product of genetic evolution and cultural evolution that have rewarded cooperative behavior in our species.
It’s well known we are not the only cooperative species in which members sacrifice themselves for the good of the group — ants being perhaps the most famous example. What may be distinctive about us is that we cooperate while also having consciousness that contemplates in advance the cost to our individual selves of any sacrifice we might make.
Evolution science finds that nature has ways of rewarding and punishing both selfish behavior and cooperative behavior in all sorts of animals. Individual humans may tend in either direction. But the balance tips toward cooperation when the decisive survival contest is not between individuals within a group but between different groups. In a given situation, a human being may “decide” to act selfishly, but we have (for better or worse) conquered the world because our cooperative tendencies have been rewarded by our cooperative successes in competition with — or sometimes cooperative dominance of — other species. In other words, cooperation is key to our survival as the “fittest.”
Rather than have me try to go any deeper into this than I have — at great risk of me mucking up Wilson’s elegant analysis — I just encourage anyone who has pondered these kinds of issues to give Wilson a read. The book is short and well written. It may leave you with more questions than you had in the first place — but then you can talk with your friends about them. That’s part of the cooperative fun of being human!