All selfishness?

Whether in conversations at the Heuriger, in social media or in the classical media, one can not shake off the impression that our society is an accumulation of egoists with a marked lack of tolerance.


People pursue their own goals without considering how this affects others. This inevitably leads to the question of whether human nature is inherently intolerant. A look into evolutionary history sheds light on the matter. For all animals living in groups, the gift of tolerance is a prerequisite for social coexistence to function at all. The coexistence inevitably brings with it situations in which the individual goals of the individual members are not compatible. These hold potential for conflict, and if the capacity for tolerance were not there, any of these situations would escalate. Since the cost of conflicts is much higher than the potential benefits, the decision is usually in favor of tolerance.

As our ancestors were forced by climate change to migrate from the rainforest to the savannah, they faced completely new challenges. Predators who had previously played a minor role were now a real problem. In order to be able to counteract the eating, our ancestors united in large groups. In groups, the likelihood of an individual falling prey to a predator reduces due to the interaction of multiple mechanisms. On the other hand, the group life itself is not automatically harmonious. Whether it's food or other resources, the interests of individuals often compete with each other. Only by using rules can group life be such that these situations do not escalate.

INFO: A selfish herd of altruists
Bill hamilton has coined the term "selfish hearth". This is misleading for two reasons: At first glance, it suggests a collective consciousness of a group that has selfish tendencies. In addition, the self-interest is very central in the term, which sounds very much like elbow tactics and intolerance. Ego egoism. However, if we take a closer look at what Hamilton describes by this term, a more nuanced picture emerges: individuals join together in groups, because they serve their own progress - that's how egoism goes. However, group life presupposes that the members treat each other tolerantly. Social groups are not unstructured accumulations, but rather complex entities that are structured by social rules. For example, there are mechanisms that control whether individual members play or violate the rules. Pure egoists are undesirable in groups, and such behavior is outlawed, punished or punished with exclusion from the group. Game theory models show that in social groups, individual members benefit from being tolerant to others and do not get in the way of their goals. This access opens up the possibility of pursuing larger goals that require collaboration. In the end, those who are able to find a balance that combines tolerance with control will benefit, so that tolerance becomes a prerequisite for living together.

Selfishness & Control Mechanisms

For the group members, being in the group was so beneficial (because one is not eaten by the next saber-toothed tiger coming by), it was worth it to leave a particularly sweet fruit to others, or not to get the most comfortable sleeping space. Despite this simple cost-benefit calculation, it is not automatic for all group members to make "living and living" their motto. Therefore, control mechanisms have evolved that ensure that generosity is not exploited. In essence, they made sure that the accommodation was not one-sided, and that those who, as egoists, just wanted to pick the raisins out of the communal cake, did not like being seen in the group. These mechanisms worked very well in the groups in which our ancestors spent much of their history. For a long time, the number of group members seldom exceeded the 200 limit. This is a group size that allows everyone to know each other personally, so no one disappears in anonymity. Only with the settlement and the emergence of the first cities, the settlements were larger.

The mother of egoism

Not only are these large clusters of people socially complex and allowing the emergence of anonymity, they also mean that evolutionary control mechanisms that protect against exploitation no longer work so well.
Selfishness and the lack of tolerance that we observe today are therefore not really in the nature of human beings. Rather, it is due to the fact that the biologically conditioned behavioral tendencies are no longer effective due to the changed living conditions. That which in the course of our evolutionary history made sure that our ancestors met each other with tolerance and respect, fails in the anonymous association.

Must we therefore despair and surrender to the fate that the city dwellers just can not help but selfish to extend their elbows, to rage about their fellow man and go through grief in a grim way? Fortunately, as its name suggests, Homo sapiens is endowed with a powerful mind. This comparatively oversized brain empowers us to deal with new problems and challenges on a scale that goes beyond simple solutions.

The success of Homo sapiens is based largely on the ability to react quickly to changing living conditions. Thus, while biology may offer no answer to the question of how we put tolerance in anonymous associations in the place of egoism, the social and cultural human is very well able to do so. By informal rules and formal laws, we ensure that our togetherness is characterized by mutual respect and a reckless pursuit of their own goals is ostracized or punished.

In general, this works very well. If the mood-makers were right with their black painting, a peaceful coexistence in the big city would be impossible. But that is exactly what defines our everyday life. We open the door for each other, get up in the tram when we think someone else needs the seat more than we do, throw the trash in the trash and not just on the street. This list of small gestures of mutual tolerance could be continued for a long time. They are so natural for us that we do not perceive them at all. They are so much a part of our everyday lives that we only become aware when the expected gesture of accommodation fails.

Positive vs. negative

Our perception is anything but true in terms of the mapping of probabilities. On the contrary, especially those things that occur extremely rarely, we notice. This may be in ours evolutionary history because we are focusing our attention on those things that are not on well-trodden paths. But this becomes problematic if we assume that we can assess real probabilities.
A newspaper that depicts the day's events in real life would hardly be read. For the most part, it would consist of messages describing the smooth running of processes and harmonious cooperation. However, when you open a newspaper, it is full of exclamation points. The ordinary disappears, the extraordinary finds attention. Classic, and especially social, media should be treated with caution because they are not unfiltered coverage. What is likely to attract attention is over-represented.
Our rational brain allows us to reflect and counteract this by keeping ourselves on a leash and, whenever it believes something, asking exactly what it knows.

INFO: The naturalistic fallacy
Biology is often used to explain egoistic behavior or even to justify it. The animal in us is responsible for setting individual goals for the good of the community and therefore (and should not) change anything. This argument is wrong and inadmissible. In every species, which does not live solitary, but lives in groups, tolerance towards the other group members is a precondition for the functioning of the coexistence. Thus, tolerance is an innovation that was made long before the first humans appeared. Using biology as a justification is inadmissible because it is based on the naturalistic fallacy that what can be explained biologically is also good and worth striving for. This approach reduces us to our existence as biological organisms and denies that we are also social and cultural entities that are not helplessly exposed to biological mechanisms. Our evolutionary behavioral tendencies determine our actions today to a more limited extent - it makes it easier for us to do some things while others cost more overcoming. Behavior that corresponds to our biological tendencies feels a bit like going downhill, while acting that is not biologically based could be compared to climbing a slope. The latter is exhausting, but anything but impossible. Anyone who goes through life as an egoist must therefore stand by the fact that he is not a particularly nice person. Biology does not justify it.

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