Getting Out From Number One
Within each one of us snarls a savage, selfish beast, argued English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 treatise "Leviathan." Without the civilizing force of an absolute monarchy, people revert to the "state of nature" in which "every man is enemy to every man," Hobbes wrote. A chaotic war of all against all follows, rendering individual existence "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."
Hobbes was not the first social observer to peg humans as selfish to the core, but his argument came at a time when the fledgling social sciences were adopting a similar stance. Seventeenth-century economists and political scientists -- the earliest modern social scientists -- relied on the assumption that people always act on the basis of rational self-interest. "Looking out for number one" is still considered a cornerstone of the human psyche by social scientists in a variety of disciplines.
In addition, sociobiologists, who study the biological basis of social behavior, argue that natural selection -- the preservation of genetically based traits that best contribute to successful reproduction -- favors selfish behavior. Helping a close relative may seem a purely friendly gesture, but in the sociobiologists' view, it increases the likelihood that copies of the altruist's genes will filter into future generations. Unrelated comrades may receive help only in the expectation that they will later return the favor.
In the related field of evolutionary biology, an influential theory devised by Richard Dawkins of Oxford (England) University envisions genes as relentlessly selfish replicators attempting to traverse the millennia by using human beings as "survival machines."
Dawkins and many in the sociobiological camp do not contend that genes equal destiny. But he argues that selfish genes get first crack at molding human nature, followed by cultural and other environmental influences.
"Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish," Dawkins writes in the revised edition of The …