The Selfless Gene

by Olivia Judson | October 2007 | Atlantic Monthly

It’s easy to see how evolution can account for the dark streaks in human nature—the violence, treachery, and cruelty. But how does it produce kindness, generosity, and heroism?

(This is a nice call-and-response to Richard Dawkins' 1976 book on adaptation and natural selection, The Selfish Gene.)

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gorillasHow does a propensity for self-sacrifice evolve?

And what about the myriad lesser acts of daily kindness—helping a little old lady across the street, giving up a seat on the subway, returning a wallet that’s been lost?

Are these impulses as primal as ferocity, lust, and greed? Or are they just a thin veneer over a savage nature?

Answers come from creatures as diverse as amoebas and baboons, but the story starts in the county of Kent, in southern England.