The Selfless Gene

How do selfless behaviors make evolutionary sense?

Posted Mar 17, 2016

madsmith33 / Pixabay
Source: madsmith33 / Pixabay

Richard Dawkins is, to my estimation, one of the greatest science communicators who has ever lived. This said, he’s proven that he’s capable of wording things in a way that, at times, can rub folks the wrong way or be taken the wrong way.

A classic case in point pertains to his seminal exposé on evolution, The Selfish Gene (Dawkins, 1976). In this book, he makes a strong case, through hundreds of examples, that evolutionary forces select features of organisms that come to facilitate the reproductive success of those organisms. From this perspective, genes that are selected by evolutionary forces may be seen as “selfish.”

Of course, with people being what they are, the “selfish” part of Dawkins’ famous phrase has quite often been distorted and/or misinterpreted, so as to (often erroneously) imply that evolutionarily informed accounts of life (and of behavior) paint humans (and all organisms) as “selfish” in the colloquial sense. (Think: I’m taking BOTH of the last two slices of pizza for myself. Dad’s not here and you can’t stop me!).

The Selfless Gene

One of the great advances in our understanding of evolution over the past several decades, in fact, underscores how important selfless behaviors are from an evolutionary perspective. In many species, selfless (or “altruistic” or “prosocial”) behaviors are quite typical, and, in fact, the existence of such selfless behaviors can be elucidated in terms of evolutionary principles. In short, such an evolutionary analysis of selfless behaviors in a broad sense implies that under certain conditions, behaviors that, on the surface, benefit another at a cost to oneself ultimately feed back to benefit oneself in an indirect manner. Thus, under certain conditions, selfless behavior ultimate increases the likelihood of one’s own long-term genetic fitness or probability of reproductive success.

Four Ways That Selfless Behaviors Make Good Evolutionary Sense

Evolutionary psychologists who study prosocial behavior may be thought of as being part of a new movement described as “positive evolutionary psychology” (see my 2014 blog post on this topic), which focuses on the application of evolutionary principles to shed light on the many positive aspects of human life. Toward this end, below are four well-studied evolution-based approaches to understanding selfless behavior in our species.

Kin-Selected Altruism. One of the most basic ways that people engage in selfless behavior is found in “kin-selected altruism” (see Hamilton, 1964), which exists when people spend their time and resources helping others who share disportionate numbers of genes with themselves. Ever see how much time, effort, and attention a new mother (or father) gives to a newborn? Ever help a sibling move furniture? Ever hear of someone hiring a relative for a job? Yeah, kin-selected altruism exists in humans - and an evolutionary perspective helps us understand why.

Reciprocal Altruism. Another basic way that people help each other is in the confines of mutually beneficial long-term relationships. We often help others with an implicit expectation of getting help back (see Trivers, 1971). Such reciprocal altruism also makes evolutionary sense, as such selfless behavior on the part of an actor ultimately will lead to payback for that actor. Ever drive a friend to the airport? You know when you say “sure, no problem, glad to do it”? While you might mean that to some extent, you probably also are thinking “Well hey, at least I know that I can count on this guy for a big favor coming up—and I will make sure to cash this one out when it’s time!"

Multi-Level Selection. Humans live in groups—and we always have. This is why solitary confinement is so very taxing and torturous for members of our kind. David Sloan Wilson (2007) has famously demonstrated that pressures for individuals to help others within their own groups (or on their “teams”) pay out in a way that leads to the group (or team) out-competing other groups—leading to ultimate benefits for everyone in the group (or on the team). If you and I are on the same basketball team and I selflessly dish the ball to you when I am being double-teamed, you score an easy layup, and we win the game, then benefits flow to both of us. Helping others in our own particular groups (across lots of different kinds of human groups) was partly selected by evolution because such behavior ultimately brought benefits to the individuals within the groups.

Selfless Behavior Is Attractive. In his famous treatise on the evolutionary psychology of human courtship, Geoffrey Miller (2000) argued that lots of uniquely human attributes evolved because they were found as attractive in others—and having such attributes led to increased mating opportunities as well as increased social connections in general. In short: People like selfless others! This simple fact is enough to make it so that selflessness should be selected by evolutionary forces.

Bottom Line

Human nature is not all peaches and cream. War, jealousy, murder, pettiness—I’d be lying if I said that these were not part of the human experience. This said, there are lots of positive things about our kind, and selfless behavior, which comes in many different forms, falls under this category. An evolutionary approach to behavior has led to the four major approaches to understanding selfless behavior described here. So when you think about evolution applied to what it means to be human, don’t just remember the idea of the “selfish gene”—the “selfless gene” metaphor perhaps works just as well.


Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Geher, G. (2014). How we’ve evolved to pay it back and pay it forward. Psychology Today Blog.

Hamilton W.D. (1964). "The genetical evolution of social behaviour. I" J. Theor. Biol. 7, 1–16.

Miller G. F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. London, Heineman.

Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.

Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for everyone: How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think