Social Evolution

the fighting banana slugs

A Scientific Argument for Being Nice to Each Other

I went to college at U.C. Santa Cruz back when they still refused to give grades for their classes, something that has changed now that the school has grown up and quadrupled its enrollment. I’m proud to say that I graduated with a grade point average of “very good”. Sometimes I was able to earn an excellent in one of my classes, and more often than I would like to admit a satisfactory, and sometimes even the dreaded very satisfactory. Nothing worse than having your professor call your academic performance very satisfactory.

Another unusual aspect was some of the strange interdisciplinary majors the school offered. They were hybrids of academia with alluring and exotic sounding names, like cosmozoology, bioinformatics, and art history. And then of course there was the major that I chose, a combination of Psychology and Biology affectionately called Psychological Biology, or as most called it, psychobio. Many assumed that this was a special branch of life science amounting to biology for psychos, and thinking back to some of the folks in my classes that may have been an accurate description. But pscyhobiology actually consisted of three separate focuses at the time–neuroscience, animal behavior, and social evolution. I specialized in animal behavior myself, which coincidentally perfectly prepared me for a career teaching middle school, but that is another topic altogether. 

cooperation gets results

Social evolution is the study of how social behavior has evolved over time. In many ways social behavior would seem to go against the Darwinian ideal of survival of the fittest, or Richard Dawkins’ idea of the Selfish Gene. Evolution saw animals in nature as inherently selfish and self-serving as they struggled for survival in the grim face of nature. This idea later fueled the egocentric and capitalistic ideals of 20th century materialism and trickle down economic theory. What sort of advantage do creatures gain from pooling their resources and working together? Large populations living in close proximity to each other experience increases in competition for limited resources such as food, shelter, access to mates, and in the case of humans, a paradoxical meme known as money. There are some obvious advantages to social behaviors, such as anonymity of the herd actually decreasing the chances of being eaten by a hungry lion, or the increase of sexual opportunities involved in being a part of large congregation of the same species, or the advantages of hunting in packs to corral and capture prey of all speeds and sizes. But in Darwinian terms the increase in competition would seem to outweigh other benefits, but we know examples of animal species exhibiting social tendencies in nature are plentiful.

In order to better understand social behaviors, social evolutionists broke down all types of social interactions into four basic categories. A social interaction consists of at least two separate individuals coming together, recognizing each other, and sharing some sort of common experience in the face of a cold, dark universe. Taking a page from economists, they used cost benefit analysis to categorize each class of social behavior. All social interactions can be placed into one of the four following categories, and they are described in terms of the cost and benefit for the initiator and recipient of the interaction.

  • Altruistic – this is the most paradoxical category in terms of evolution. This involves a significant cost to the initiator that benefits only the recipient. Folks who risk their lives to save strangers are perfect examples of this. It goes right in the face of everything Darwin proposed in his theories, and is seen as a highly evolved behavior. While it is assumed that only humans engage in this, it has been proven that other cognitively gifted animals such as dolphins and dogs will sometimes display altruistic behavior. It is so rare in nature and human society that individuals displaying this tendency are turned into heroes, canonized or awarded the nobel peace price, and possibly martyred when paradigms shift, or when some selfish asshole buys or murders their way into a position of power.
  • Cooperative – this is the most obvious reason for social interaction. This involves a benefit for both the initiator and the recipient. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. While humans have accomplished many great things employing this strategy, it is also prevalent throughout the biosphere, and can happen between different species and even between kingdoms. In my opinion it is actually a thinly veiled selfish behavior, because even though I’m helping you, I’m really doing it to help myself. But the important thing to mention is that more than one organism is finding a benefit. And I think most can agree that it is the best way to affect positive (or sometimes negative) change in the world around us. United we stand, strength in numbers, yada, yada, yada.
  • Selfish – this is a much lower behavior on the social evolution hierarchy. Selfish behavior involves a benefit to the initiator and a cost (sometimes quite significant) to the recipient. This is all too prevalent in the natural world and the human world, and I truly believe our societies would be much better off without so much rampant selfishness. Your ego is not your amigo, or anyone else’s amigo for that matter. Compassionate, generous, philanthropic, charitable, giving, caring, and benevolent are all considered antonyms for selfish, so it would seem that selfish behavior is considered a very low and despicable type of interaction.
  • Spiteful – in terms of social behavior, this is the lowest of the low, and it is even rarer in nature than altruistic behavior. Except, of course, when it comes to humans, who really know how to hold a grudge and not let go. Ever.  It involves a cost to both the initiator and the recipient. Literally nobody benefits, and a lot of times it ends up affecting way more people than just the two individuals involved in the initial interaction. It’s like going miles out of your way to tell someone how much they suck, and maybe even throw a couple rocks or bullets at them as well. This is spiteful, unless of course putting other people down makes you feel better about yourself, in which case you are not being spiteful. You are just a selfish asshole. But this doesn’t answer the most important question of all– are internet trolls being spiteful or selfish?

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Oh Wikipedia, don’t you know that bees dying for the hive is not altruistic because they are all related. They are dying to protect their sisters and mother which populate the hive, and dying for a family member that shares the same genes as you doesn’t count as altruism. It is selfish behavior dictated by the degree of genetic relatedness. Bees and ant colonies are actually one large family unit, and due to the fancily termed phenomenon of haplodiploidy, this is not altruism at all. And my students wonder why wikipedia should not be used a primary source for information.

So where does that leave us? Great question. I’ve included this silly little chart below to help us all understand the best places to hang out on this hierarchy, as well as the best places not to hang out. If humans are inherently good and inherently social creatures, let’s start engaging in some more positive social behaviors. It really will make the world a better place.

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So what do you think? Are these helpful distinctions to make? Will being more thoughtful in our social interactions with others create positive change in the world? Do you even care?


  1. This is a great and informative article, but I disagree a bit about your determinations of altruism. While it might come at an immediate cost to you, it does have inherent benefits. Altruism probably shouldn’t be practiced to detrimental level, but in some cases it almost seems to blend with cooperation (i.e. martydom). Cooperation on the other is great, but it would be awfully selfish to only help people out if there is a foreseeable benefit for you. In all, I think morals and social interaction are more complex than can be summarized in a chart. Still loved the post though, and I wish more people would consider such issues!

    1. I would argue that true altruism (in social evolutionary terms) is probably extremely rare in humans. I think that cooperation is a much more apt term, because most people that have altruistic tendencies will see some sort of benefit, even if that benefit is to make themselves feel better about themselves. Helping other people often makes both parties happy, and that feels more cooperative than anything. As a teacher I know that I am making a difference in the world. I am sacrificing some things, but the rewards I get are much greater than the sacrifices. Sometimes I want to tear my hair out, walk away and not have to deal with the bureaucratic tangle that is the American education system. I made more money and had more free time when I was a bartender, but in the end I feel better about myself being a teacher than a bartender. But I am hardly a martyr or an altruist.

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