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Survival of the Nicest:

How Altruism Made Us Human, and Why It Pays to Get Along

Stefan Klein

(London Times)

ARE HUMANS naturally nice or nasty? Taking the long view, the jury is out. We have, down the millenniums, massacred and tortured each other with gleeful abandon and yet we have also loved, rescued, defended, helped and worked with each other. In both cases, we seem to be unique; no other creature slaughters or loves with such crazed yet reasoning intensity as Homo sapiens. But why do we do either?

Until 155 years ago, good and evil were discussed in a variety of religious or philosophical terms. They were elemental aspects of the world, but after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species one of these aspects - good - became an apparently insoluble puzzle. Evolution by means of natural selection seemed to portray a world in which every species and individual was engaged in a perpetual war of all against all. Existence involved a brutal process of 'survival of the fittest', a phrase invented not by Darwin but by his far dimmer disciple, Herbert Spencer. But, dim as he was, Spencer had a point: what reason could there be for goodness in a Darwinian universe?

One of the stories in Stefan Klein's thoroughly readable and, towards the end, wildly overoptimistic book is how we currently answer that question without ditching Darwin. Another story is the longer one of how altruism spread across the world as a religious rule. And, finally, there is the story of how we might be in the process of becoming much, much nicer, thanks to Google and friends.

One attempt to explain altruism in evolutionary terms was via family links. We would always be nicer to people who shared our genes so-called kin selection. And so, asked whether he would jump into a river to save his brother from drowning, the geneticist JBS Haldane glibly replied: 'No, but I would save two brothers or eight cousins.' Either choice would mean saving all his genome but, since the calculation was obviously absurd, Haldane undermined his argument. After all, why would we help an unrelated blind man across the road? Why, indeed, should we be so overflowing with altruism that we extend love to other species in the form of our pets? They, obviously, have different genes.

Game theory then intervened. Psychologists devised clever little games, both to test people's responses and to work out optimum survival strategies. The most famous game was Prisoner's Dilemma, which tested how far people would go to compromise and co-operate. It came up with a startling result. People assumed non-compromisers ' 'hawks' ' would always win more than 'the doves' who compromised. In fact, the best strategy turned out to be benign 'tit for tat'. Your first move is always to be nice and all subsequent moves are determined by the other's response: nasty if they are nasty, nice if they are nice. Everybody wins.

The conclusion - from this and many other experiments and disciplines - is that altruism is mathematically embedded in the human condition. We are naturally nice and, as Klein puts it, 'kindness is like the air', it is where and how we live, and, thanks to the science, 'a new image of humankind is emerging that shows a much more friendly Homo sapiens than seen before'.

There is, however, a problem. This new image is based on group rather than kin selection - in other words, we will be nicer to our own group, not just our relations but also a nation, a football club or our circle of friends. In contests with different groups, it makes our group more effective if we help each other. In other words, we have explained not world peace but tribalism, which doesn't, on the face of it, seem much of an improvement on kin selection.

The often brutal evidence for group selection is strong. One weird example is that Greenland Vikings didn't eat fish, a huge sacrifice of an abundant food source, perhaps because of a local dietary taboo. More obvious cases are the kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers who kill themselves to signal group membership, and genital mutilation (male and female) is just another sacrifice to assert the dominance of the group.

Klein's optimism, however, is based on more than just evolutionary theory. He believes our natural inclination to goodness can be globalised; in other words, the whole of humanity can be the group.

This may be said to have happened in the past in the so-called Axial Age, the period from 800-200BC when, almost simultaneously across the world, religion was redefined as primarily a moral relationship between humans rather than a drama of the gods. All these developments involved variations of the Golden Rule: behave towards others as you would wish them to behave towards you. The rule is present in every world religion.

The Golden Rule is universal; it applies to all human encounters and it represents, says Klein, 'a triumph of spirit over nature'. Moreover, altruism is infectious. Further psychological experiments testing people's generosity show that people feel better for giving and even better for giving across cultures - look at how we responded to the Asian tsunami appeal. Good begats good and 'altruism is not a finite commodity'.

The obvious problem is that this is a fragile process. Internal group dynamics fluctuate and can become hawk-dominated, and a hawk with nuclear weapons can wreck any age, however golden. Furthermore, Klein's optimism goes completely off the rails when he evokes an advertising company - Google - as a model of the altruism implicit in the information age. In fact, such companies are doing a lot of damage to other groups (the music, book and newspaper industries) and nations by their byzantine tax-dodging schemes.

Never mind. Going off the rails with optimism is no sin and this is a fabulously informative, feel-good book. It puts too much faith in some rather soft - speculative, changeable - science to be fully convincing. But that is the language of today's secular faith and, like the tracts of old, Survival of the Nicest makes you want to be good and to feel good about it. Who can argue with that?

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