Service leadership: Is altruism self-interest in disguise?

Theories of ethical leadership need to account for acts of self-interest. Evolutionary psychology has an equation explaining altruism in Darwinian terms

The theory has relevance in the UK, as the Government attempts to encourage more widespread acts of service leadership in tough economic times. It presents a dilemma to economists who have trouble fitting altruism into approaches which rely on equations to test hypotheses grounded in assumptions of rational human behaviours in decision-making.

If altruism has its existence outside the dominant rational model, less traditional ‘maps’ of leadership will gain in credibility. A pithy question posed by a BBC correspondent recently reaches the heart of the debate: Is altruism self-interest in disguise?

The article outlined the altruism equation conceived by George Price, an American evolutionary biologist whose work was taken up when he relocated to University College London in the late 1960s. I summarize the BBC piece below:

George Price’s equation addressed a problem that has vexed scientists since Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species more than a century earlier. If we are selfish creatures, engaged in a battle for survival, why do we display altruism? Why do we show kindness to others even at a cost to ourselves?

Price’s equation explained how altruism could thrive, even amongst groups of selfish people. It built on the work of a number of other scientists, arguably beginning with JBS Haldane, a British biologist who developed a theory in the early 1950s. When asked if he would sacrifice his own life to save that of another, he said that he would, but only under certain conditions. “I would lay down my life for two brothers, or eight cousins.” Haldane’s reasoning was a simplistic explanation of a theory that has come to dominate evolutionary biology – that of “kin selection”. Since he would share 50% of each brother’s genetic makeup, and 12.5% of each cousin’s, his genes would survive even if he were to die.

In the 1960s another scientist, William Donald Hamilton, popularised the theory. He wrote a simple equation to explain that an organism would demonstrate self-sacrificing behaviour if it would enhance the reproductive chances of those it was closely related to.

Price arrived in London with no background in the field of evolutionary biology. Working in seclusion, he rewrote the Hamilton equation in a simpler but more wide-reaching way. It explained the relationship between different generations of a population, and could be used to show how the prevalence of particular traits would change over time.

Although it was a fairly simple statement, it had never been expressed in clear mathematical terms, and the staff at the University College London recognised his insight as wildly original.

A debate about the scientific roots of altruism still rages to this day, but kin selection remains a hugely influential theory, and Price’s contribution is held in high regard by many.

“It underpins a lot of modern evolutionary biology research,” says Andy Gardner, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, who uses the Price Equation in much of his work. Oren Harman, who wrote Price’s biography in 2010, says the view is shared by plenty of people in the field.

Samir Okasha, professor of the philosophy of science at Bristol University, thinks not. “The idea [that evolutionary theory shows that altruism is self-interest in disguise] is, to my mind, a questionable thing to say. Behaviour in some animal species is indeed genetically determined, but with humans he argues culture sets us apart from animals in that respect, and points to the huge variance in social norms in different countries, and over short periods of time.

Beyond kinship

The debate is rooted in the dominant rational model of human behaviour. Price’s equation suggests that decisions may be assessed for their rationality according to the calculus of genetic benefits resulting from them. It is a map predicting that humans act in the interests of the gene pool so that selfless acts may actually be rational and therefore not so selfless. It argues that self-interest is served by so-called altruistic actions.

Rational tyranny?

Research into socio-biology is becoming important. The ‘map’ of altruism is not easily dismissed. Neither are the maps drawing on moral philosophy and religious belief systems. A thought struck me. Social Darwinists believed in the ‘natural order of things’, including the instinct found among species to destroy the offspring carrying competitive genes. Perhaps there should be an equation on the rationality of what in humans is seen as tyrannical survival tactics?


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