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April 4, 2012

Altruism – it’s our default setting

Political economist, Elinor Ostrum, won the Nobel prize for her work in highlighting the capacity of communities to cooperate with each other – even to design complex rules for the long term sustainable management of scarce natural resources.  A form of natural wisdom seems to emerge for the common good.  This idea runs counter to the theories of Richard Dawkins etal who argue we are innately driven by self-interest.  New research reinforces the more optimistic view of humankind – that altruism is our natural state.


US evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson was in the UK last month to talk about the field study he has been running for six years in his home town of Binghamton, a suburb of New York in economic decline.

“There are things that are natural to a field biologist, and one of them is to study species in their natural environment,” explains Wilson. “Jane Goodall [famous for her studies of chimpanzees] has the Gombe Stream Park [Tanzania] and Darwin’s finches are studied in the Galápagos, so why don’t we study humans in the context of their everyday life?”

In 2006, Wilson decided to study the 47,000 residents of Binghamton. He hoped that by observing, making predictions based on his theories and then staging interventions to see if those predictions are confirmed, the field study would generate evidence for his evolutionary theories and, in the process “make the world a better place too”.

Wilson’s theories are contrary to what we have been told for the last 30-odd years, ever since Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene. In contrast to Dawkins, Wilson argues that genetic self-interest is not humankind’s default setting and says we are altruistic and co-operative by nature. Prosociality, as he terms it, is a behaviour that gives a group a genuine competitive advantage.

“Selfishness beats altruism within groups, [but] altruistic groups beat selfish groups, and everything else is commentary,” says Wilson.

The idea of testing out these ideas in the field with work in communities was new when Wilson began, as, with the help of a team of graduates and undergraduates, he attempted to measure levels of co-operation across the city. Surveys were carried out among school students, asking them to rate statements such as: “I think it is important to help other people.” A map was then created with hills to represent the areas with high co-operation, and valleys representing the low co-operation areas.

The team tried to confirm these results by carrying out tests such as dropping letters to see if they got posted and going into schools to play games measuring co-operation. They even canvassed Binghamton neighbourhoods on Halloween and Christmas to see which were lit more decoratively because they believed that the more holiday decorations a neighbourhood had, the more nurturing it was, and so the better its civic health.

Wilson then kicked off a number of local projects in order to see if he could use what he calls his “evolutionary toolkit” to improve levels of co-operation. The design-your-own-park competition, for example, was supposed to pit neighbourhoods against each other in friendly competition. His educational programme, similarly, was set up to encourage co-operation and friendly competition using design features based on the principles developed by Nobel-prizewinner Elinor Ostrom, including a strong sense of community, a safe environment, and graduated rewards and sanctions.

Reviews of his ambitious Binghamton Neighbourhood Project vary from wild enthusiasm, through to bemusement and some fairly patronising write-offs. One recurring question is: what does evolution have to do with all this? In the New York Times, Mark Oppenheimer wondered if Wilson is not “being a little hasty” in “co-opting most any idea he likes as evidence of cultural evolution”. There are a few queries, too, about his methodology, given the enormous scale of the project and an approach that can appear scattershot.

Wilson is disarmingly honest about the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants nature of the research and has previously paraphrased Einstein by saying: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be research.”

As for results, the work is still at an early stage but Wilson points to his academic programme for at-risk students where the students significantly outperformed their comparison group in a randomised controlled trial. The students, who had failed at least three out of five courses in their previous year, were made to feel part of a special unit in an extremely safe and nurturing environment, given lots of short-term incentives and genuine responsibility in running the programme.

Having been out in the cold for decades, his theories are now finding favour with politicians and policy thinktanks on both sides of the Atlantic who are desperate to engage communities in their own neighbourhoods to work together at solving intractable social ills more effectively and cheaply than the state.

They resonate too with questions about communities and co-operation in the age of social media that sociologists such as Richard Sennett are grappling with, and the wellbeing agenda being pushed by economist Richard Layard.

Wilson was in the UK at the invitation of the Co-operative Group, which is keen to make a case that co-operative behaviour is the norm, not the exception. “We want people to begin thinking differently, to realise that the norm is not the man who doesn’t get his round in when everyone is in the pub, but the man who does,” says the Co-op’s head of social goals Paul Monaghan. The group is considering setting up a UK version of Binghamton, and is talking to Wilson about how this could work.

In the US, Mary Webster describes herself as “this little mouse in David’s maze, behaving just the way I should”. The 71-year-old has been involved in community work in her home town of Binghamton for over a decade, but a couple of years ago her group, Safer Streets, became one of several taking part in Wilson’s field study.

Webster says that slowly she can see some results. She is now in charge of three design-your-own park competitions, and she says that some neighbours with whom she had been clashing turned up out of the blue to one of the block parties with a huge tray of tacos. “That’s the sort of thing that gives me a shiver down my back,” she says. “Local schools are now coming to us, we’re talking to the city council, people seem to be taking us more seriously.”

But it’s slow work, she concedes. “You know the funniest thing? David thinks I’m some sort of incredible example of altruism. But I started all this because the neighbourhood was going downhill and I didn’t want my house to get less valuable. So really, I’m as self-interested as anyone. What do you think of that?”

Wilson laughs when I relay Mary’s words. “Mary told me that the very first day we met,” he says. “But in fact, she could express her self-interest in any number of ways – by leaving the neighbourhood, by investing in a security system, by attempting to drive out the bad element, and so on. Instead, she expresses it by working to improve the whole neighbourhood. If she succeeds, then she will share in the improvement of the neighbourhood, but it will be at great personal cost. That’s altruism defined in behavioural terms. Perhaps altruism makes the altruist feel good, or is performed out of a sense of duty, or to gain admission into heaven, or is based on a sense of enlightened self-interest. Insofar as they result in the same society-oriented behaviours, they can be regarded as functionally equivalent.”

He adds: “Perhaps Mary really is entirely self-interested in her own mind, but in my experience, it is extremely common for altruists to profess selfish motives as a way to downplay what they do. It’s not altruistic to wear altruism on your sleeve!”