Is it a common intuition among philosophers that human beings are naturally self-centered.? We don’t, such a story could go, actually give a damn about others’ survival, but for various reasons – largely for our own good – we need to act otherwise. My sense is that this is a wide-spread belief in the profession, and indeed when it surfaces, I end up feeling I should find another field, despite the empirical and transcental arguments I have heard for “the impossibility of altruism.” Are such intuitions, if they do exist, the product of rational reflection or do they more often mirror deeply popular ways of regarding ourselves? That is, are they more a matter of ideologies?
In any case, it now seems that such intuitions may well be quite wrong. There has already been interesting evidence that reciprocity is a deep seated need for the human psyche. And theorists such as Sarah Hrdy have argued that female groups formed to raise infants are not inherently selfish agents. But the NY Times reports empirical backing for an even more stunning idea. What distinguished human beings from chimps in the earliest stages of our split from them is the difference in cooperating with and learning from others:
Anthropologists studying living hunter-gatherers have radically revised their view of how early human societies were structured, a shift that yields new insights into how humans evolved away from apes.
Early human groups, according to the new view, would have been more cooperative and willing to learn from one another than the chimpanzees from which human ancestors split about five million years ago. The advantages of cooperation and social learning then propelled the incipient human groups along a different evolutionary path. … Group selection could possibly act at the level of the tribe, Dr. Hill said, meaning that tribes with highly cooperative members would prevail over those that were less cohesive, thus promoting genes for cooperation.
And what is part of all this? Pair bonding:
The finding corroborates an influential new view of early human origins advanced by Bernard Chapais, a primatologist at the University of Montreal, in his book “Primeval Kinship” (2008). Dr. Chapais showed how a simple development, the emergence of a pair bond between male and female, would have allowed people to recognize their relatives, something chimps can do only to a limited extent. When family members dispersed to other bands, they would be recognized and neighboring bands would cooperate instead of fighting to the death as chimp groups do.
I’m left wondering about philosophical intuitions. Is it right that many people have found “foundational selfishness” an intuitively attractive view? If so, does that tell us that books such as The Selfish Gene are just internalized? Are intuitions, despite many people’s claims for their source in reason, too often a reflection of wide-spread academic beliefs?