If Evolutionary Psychology is true, concern for ones immediate family is just disguised selfishness

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“Evolutionary psychologists (EP) are concerned with studying the evolved cognitive structure of the mind. EP argues that much has changed since the mind evolved in the ancestral environment and behaviours today may or may not be adaptive. The focus of study is on psychological or mental mechanisms….. Evolutionary psychologists believe these mechanisms were shaped by natural selection… ” (Leda Cosmides and John Tooby). The perspective, evolutionary psychology has grown from Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution (1859).

Darwin believed that the evolutionary process of natural selection was responsible for shaping behaviour as well as anatomy and physiology. He envisaged that all human behaviour would eventually be explained in evolutionary principles. Classical Darwinism saw natural selection as a competition between individuals or groups. Neo-Darwinist’s consider the process to be a competition between genes. With this modification they believe evolution theory can now account for human behaviour.

It is our genes which are the raw materials that have been modified by natural selection, and hence the driving forces behind all cognitive processes. All human characteristics are considered the product of genetic competition: “The ultimate goal that the mind was designed to attain is maximising the number of copies of the genes that created it” (Steven Pinker). Consequently, our basic understanding of morality and all the qualities generally regarded as human specific become just a device of our selfish genes to further their own interests. It is these implications which interest philosophers.

In this instance we are concerned with whether evolutionary psychology allows for the existence of Kin directed altruism or successfully discounts it as well disguised selfishness. Richard Dawkin’s is responsible for coining the emotive term of the “selfish gene”: “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish modules known as genes” (Richard Dawkins, 1976). This metaphor is not popular with all evolutionary psychologists. Edward. H. Hagen has blamed this controversial approach for overshadowing the entire science.

EP does not claim that selfish genes can only create selfish individuals. Describing genes as selfish is an analogy that has nothing to do with our folk notion of selfishness. Genes increase their frequency by causing individuals possessing them to produce more offspring. By increasing their own frequency they decrease the frequency of alternative genes. Therefore the successful genes are “selfish” as they have increased their own frequency at the expense of others. Evolutionary psychology does allow the existence of unselfish behaviour but attempts to explain it in genetically motivated terms.

EP’s believe that every human being acts to enhance their “inclusive fitness”. Crudely put, this means to increase the frequency and distribution of their genes in future generations. In principle, evolutionary psychology reasonably explains kin directed altruism: It makes sense that successful genes should provide an inclination to de kind to our relatives because we share genes with them, and their reproductive success will ensure the passage of a proportion of our genes into the next generation. In addition, the degree of help we give to relatives should be a function of our degree of relatedness to them and their age.

We share half our genes with our children and siblings and a quarter with our cousins and grandchildren etc. This strategy reasonably explains the pattern of familial concern. This explanation may also be a disturbing factor of why a child is significantly more likely to be abused or murdered by a step parent than a biological one. (Homicide, New York, Aldine 1988) Of course this is a rare occurrence in any family, and the perpetrators are obviously psychologically disturbed, yet (according to EP) step parents are not genetically equipped with the desire to nurture some one else’s children.

David Barash sites the example of a parent who would jump in front of a car to save their child to illustrate that parental altruism is, in fact, well disguised selfishness: By endangering themselves and of course their genes to save their child, the act may appear altruistic. Barash claims that this is not an example of true altruism because the genes are simply saving some of themselves. He concludes: “Caring for your own children or for those with whom we share genes is, then just, a special case of those genes selfishly promoting themselves by watching out for others in whom they also reside” (p. 11).

Therefore, the parent is acting in their own genes best interest which is ultimately selfish behaviour. This argument can be identified as unsound on several accounts; initially because the parent’s risky behaviour may in fact be contrary to the genetic interest: If the adult should die in this rescue, they would be unable to have any more children; they may leave several orphaned children behind unable to take care of themselves or the rescued child may be heavily disabled. All these consequences limit the likelihood of the genetic reproductive possibilities.

But even if none of these consequences ensued, there are plenty of flourishing families whose behaviour blatantly thwarts the supposed genetic interest: A parent may dedicate their life to the sole care of a handicapped child, support a daughter’s demanding career, or prioritise their own career above starting a family. Again these examples are at the cost of future generations so are not in the genes best interests. To act unselfishly in light of our genes would mean to abort the handicapped child and encourage teenage pregnancies. These consequences are not desirable, at least, in modern western society.

Janet Radcliffe Richards identifies this as a significant problem with EP. Explanations are always past tense. We are told how characteristics have formed but not how they will develop at the level of the individual: “… the mind is a set of information-processing machines that were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter- gatherer ancestors” (Cosmides and Tooby) Evolution is not forward looking.

The “adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors” are obviously nothing like the problems we face today: So evolution, on this account explains our emotions in terms of their having had in the past, on average, a good effect on the passing on of genes while the species was developing its present characteristics. But that doesn’t at all mean that any individual is doing genetically well by acting on them-or even that the species as a whole is, since conditions may be changed” (Janet Radcliffe Richards, p. 214). Even if Barash could prove that parental altruism was simply a way of satisfying the genetic interest, it is clear that the interests of the individual are not the same as the interests of the genes.

If they were, our sole motivation would be to reproduce. Although this is a strong instinct, we don’t consider using contraception or monogamy as ‘selfish’ behaviour. Barash’s claim, then, that the self sacrificing parent is not truly altruistic because they are selfishly saving some of their genes is unjustified; there is no reason to presume this is all that they are doing and there are plenty of examples of altruism within human family behaviour that don’t conform to the genes interests. In addition, the interests of the genes are very rarely in tune with the interests of the individual.

Of course, genes in themselves don’t have motives or interests, but are responsible for forming an instinct or desire in us to love and take care of our children. Genetic interests aside, the parent will risk their life to save their child because they genuinely put their child’s safety before their own. Therefore, even at the level of the individual the action may be perceived as ultimately selfish because in rescuing the child the parent is satisfying their own desire to do so. Philosophers call this idea’ psychological egoism’: the idea that all our concerns are ultimately concern for ourselves.

To bite the bullet with this theory, though, is to define altruism out of existence. Indeed all concern for our family could be deemed as well disguised selfishness. But so would charity and any form of philanthropic behaviour. In this case it would be irresponsible to concede to this self defeating concept as it would mean departing far from evolutionary psychology to investigate. In light of Barash’s argument, there is no reason to assume that parental altruism is not genuine. Therefore, if evolutionary psychology is true, concern for ones immediate family is not just disguised selfishness.

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