Board notes: From selfish genes come better angels

medal of valor

By Mark Laskow, Chair
Carnegie Hero Fund Commission

The Carnegie Hero Fund is dedicated to telling the stories of the heroes who have earned the Carnegie Medal.  But, why?  Is it not enough that the hero receives his or her medal?  Why is it so important to spread the news of what they did to earn it?

First, of course, we tell these stories as a modest reward to the hero.  Their friends and neighbors should know what they did and appreciate the risk they took.  The heroes are unlikely to do much storytelling about themselves, so we do it for them.  They deserve it.

Second, we are convinced that every story of altruistic heroism told weaves another thread into the fabric of our civilization.  Spreading the news of these selfless acts strengthens a culture that makes all our lives better.

That is a big claim, but it is nicely supported by two interesting books bearing on altruism and both genetic and social evolution.  I refer to Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (2006) and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature:  Why Violence Has Declined (2012).  Taken together, they left me much more optimistic about the future of humanity and more convinced of the importance of telling the stories of our heroes.

Dawkins vividly describes how the pressures of genetic selection work against any tendency to act altruistically toward those who are not close kin.  Simply put, the pressures of selection should over time eliminate genes which cause (or even permit) an individual to seriously risk death to benefit someone who does not carry the same gene.  This seems like grim news for us and for our heroes.  Happily, Dawkins finds a way through this.  He notes that genetic selection is strictly backward-looking.  It “knows” nothing of the future, or even of today.  It only knows and selects for what has worked in the past.  Humans, though, evolved another remarkable capacity that changed everything:  a conscious imagination which allows us to consider what might happen in the future.  We can imagine a future which might differ from the past, a future which might be better if we were to modify our behavior in one way or another.  This consciousness also allows us to create ideas that can take on a life of their own.  Dawkins describes these as memes (yes, he seems to have invented the term), and demonstrates that these memes themselves may undergo a process similar to genetic selection.

Dawkins is a hard-core scientist who leaves no doubt that genetic selection is a mechanistic, unsentimental business.  Yet without relaxing his scientific rigor, he finds room for the creation of our…humanity.  Our genes exercise tremendous influence over our lives, but they do not rule us or mechanically determine our actions.  Dawkins left room for humanity, and heroism.

Pinker picks up where Dawkins leaves off.  He begins by tracing a long and steep decline in human violence that continues to this day.  He demonstrates this decline both in wars and in interpersonal violence such as murder, rape and robbery.  I don’t know about you, but I often find myself so caught up in the daily news of crime and conflict that I lose the big picture. Pinker brings the good news, and lots of data to support it:  violence has been in a long decline, the decline has been significant, and it continues today.  But even better is his explanation of why that decline occurred.  This is the part that interests us here.

Pinker explains that over time mankind has evolved social institutions to reduce violence.  Rulers began slowly to use force to curb casual violence among the population.  Perhaps the ruler was just claiming a monopoly on the use of force for himself, but things ran better when he did.  Over time, though, other institutions began to reduce violence through encouragement rather than coercion.  This might occur in subtle ways.  Pinker credits the printing press and books, including fiction, with spreading the idea that strangers were people rather like ourselves and worthy of some consideration.  The growth of trade and commerce gave individuals a stake in the wellbeing of their customers and trading partners.  No one of these developments would have been sufficient by itself, but together they began to weave the fabric of a less violent civil society.  You might say that collectively we learned to be less violent and to benefit from that.  We learned that if we could forgo the short-term rewards of robbery or revenge, we could live better lives overall.

Heroic altruism takes the next logical step:  not only will I refrain from harming my neighbor, but I will take personal risk to benefit him.  This benefits the person rescued, but it benefits society as well.  How?  The complex of civil institutions and culture that Pinker credits for the reduction in violence depends on a sense of long-term reciprocity among the citizenry.  If we are to pass up short-term rewards to live in a better world, we expect our fellow citizens to do the same.  If that expectation breaks down, so does our world.

Each selfless act by one of our heroes brilliantly reinforces our confidence in that expectation of reciprocity.  Each rescue strengthens the culture that has so improved our lives.  That is why each story of the heroes is worth telling, and retelling.  So we will.

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