In “Why We Help: The Evolution of Cooperation” [Preview] (Scientific American, June 19, 2012), Martin A. Nowak advises, “Far from being a nagging exception to the rule of evolution, cooperation has been one of its primary architects”:
People tend to think of evolution as a strictly dog-eat-dog struggle for survival. In fact, cooperation has been a driving force in evolution.
Yes, for better or worse, from a human perspective.
There are five mechanisms by which cooperation may arise in organisms ranging from bacteria to human beings.
It’s important to get that in, in case anyone thinks that co-operation in humans is an intelligent or moral choice.
Humans are especially helpful because of the mechanism of indirect reciprocity, which is based on reputation and leads us to help those who help others. [paywall]
Nowak is one of the researchers associated with E. O. Wilson, who recently drew the ire of scores of others by backing away from his famous kin/group selection theory, proclaiming that everyone is right, basically.
Are the people who claim that we evolved to be violent right too? Yes, probably. Which is just the point. Everybody is right and therefore nobody is.
Whatever was going on in the pointless uproar around Wilson and his colleagues, it happened because evolutionary biologists were pretending to be sociologists. And still are, it seems. Some facts available to almost anyone who doesn’t inhabit the ivory tower are: Only some humans are especially helpful. They are not necessarily more helpful to those who help others, but they are more likely to know them. Some societies encourage general helpfulness; other encourage helping only members of one’s own group.
To understand the evolution of such trends, human history is far more informative than studies of primate apes.
See also: Evolutionary psychologists take dead aim at mathematician who says they don’t add up