LETTERS: Altruism is more than selfish genes

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The Independent Online
Sir: Andrew Brown goes over the top ("Altruistic equations that killed a good man", 14 October). Bill Hamilton's maths may be sound, but support a dubious thesis: the selfish gene-ery spin on Darwinian evolution.

There are other ways of explaining altruism in animal behaviour. It may well be that altruism occurs in all social species because being social - the social good - requires it: while the individual good necessarily results, to a significant extent, from the common good.

Hence everyone benefits from altruism, not just someone's genes. Try to imagine a social species in which self-interest dominated everyone's behaviour, or had to be knocked out of each individual in its infancy.

The common good in practice is the good of an individual's community, not some vague abstraction. It is the community which benefits from altruistic behaviour, and that need not be made up of related individuals: a platoon of soldiers or a lifeboat crew, for instance.

To argue, as Hamilton does, that their concern for one another derives from selfish gene-ery via kinship "altruism"; or that the self-sacrificing squaddie is indirectly serving the selfish interests of his genes - is at best unconvincing.

It is interesting just how welcoming are the social and academic environments to evolutionary theories - educated guesses, speculations, evangelical crusades like Richard Dawkins's - which find greed, competition and selfishness at the roof of human behaviour, or in the dirt around the root.

There are different ideas - Kropotkin's mutual aid; Professor V C Wynne- Edwards's group selection - and informed criticisms of selfish gene-ery which merit equal attention.


Orton, Cumbria