Tricksters, Selfishness & Altruism

In evolutionary biology, few issues have caused more debate than altruism or what appears to be altruism. It is generally accepted that selection operates on individual organisms and that these organisms are selfishly interested in their own survival and reproduction. Another way of stating this is that individual organisms are interested solely in passing along their genes and are uninterested in higher level abstractions such as the group or “species.” If this is the case, then how can we explain what seem to be self-sacrificing behaviors?

In a series of foundational papers and books, George C. Williams, John Maynard Smith, William D. Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and Richard Dawkins explained how altruism and cooperation could have evolved through the combined operations of inclusive fitness and kin selection. The upshot of all this is that what looks like altruistic behavior is actually self interested behavior, when viewed from the perspective of an individual organism and its genes. There is, in other words, no such thing as “pure” altruism.

A small number of scholars have never been able to stomach the notion that what appears to be altruism is rooted in selfishness. Many, I suspect, are metaphysically troubled by the idea and simply cannot accept that “pure goodness” does not exist. In an effort to carve out conceptual space for unadulterated kindness, they have championed the idea of group level selection. They are the Kantians (or perhaps deists) of evolutionary biology. This group includes George R. Price, David Sloan Wilson, Elliot Sober, E.O. Wilson, and Oren Harman.

As some may know, Wilson recently co-authored an already notorious (and as Jerry Coyne explains, certainly dubious) paper in Nature asserting that kin selection is a chimera. Harman, for his part, recently published The Price of Altruism, which is part biography of George Price and part sermon extolling group level selection. Harman’s book was revealing in more ways than one: it exposed the metaphysics that I suspect motivates more than a few group level selectionists. George Price was an ecstatic (and eccentric) Christian.

This longish preface brings me to the point of this post: the “Trickster” figure who is found in the oral traditions of nearly all hunting and gathering peoples. Although this figure has been especially well documented among Native Americans, the trickster appears in nearly all world mythologies in one guise or another (e.g., Prometheus and Loki). After reading Paul Radin’s The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology and Mac Linscott Ricketts’ “The North American Indian Trickster,” I came across this astonishing explanation of the ancient and archetypal Trickster myths:

It is [Franz] Boas‘s contention that a sense of altruism is not likely to be very well developed in simpler societies, and so the members of such societies w0uld find it difficult to understand why a culture hero [i.e., the trickster] would want to benefit mankind.

The problem of motivation is solved, however, if the “benefits to mankind” are the accidental by-products of actions which the culture hero [or trickster] undertakes for purely selfish reasons. (Carroll 1984:110-111).

Boas offered this assessment in 1898 — long before anyone had considered the apparent contradiction of altruism in evolutionary terms. If Boas is correct, our ancestors had already considered the issue and resolved it without benefit of arcane equations or recourse to metaphysics: altruism is a byproduct of selfishness.


Ricketts, M. (1966). The North American Indian Trickster. History of Religions, 5 (2) DOI: 10.1086/462529

Carroll, M. (1984). The Trickster as Selfish-Buffoon and Culture Hero. Ethos, 12 (2), 105-131 DOI: 10.1525/eth.1984.12.2.02a00020

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4 thoughts on “Tricksters, Selfishness & Altruism

  1. Peter Dreyer

    Why should altruism be “pure”? Why is “selfishness” bad? Because your mommy told you it was? You–and Dawkins et al.–are playing with words. Sure, we’re selfish. If we weren’t we’d be dead. But we all in one way or other benefit from human altruism, notwithstanding its lamentable “impurity.”

  2. admin Post author

    I don’t think there is any reason why altruism needs to be “pure” or “unadulterated.” These are adjectives and terms used most often by theorists who think there must be such things, that humans must have some kind of metaphysical capacity — unrelated to the physical self — that is “good.” I generally do not traffic in normative concepts of this kind. We seem to be in agreement that people are selfish, and perhaps even in agreement that selfish behaviors can manifest as altruistic behaviors. Further, you seem to be in agreement with Dawkins, et al. that human altruism is filled with “impurity.”

    Given these facts (i.e., agreement all the way around), I am not sure why you mention my mother’s lessons or Dawkins’ “word play.”

  3. Neil Bates

    I think the whole framing of the issue by the conventional thinkers is wrong. They are imagining every type of behavior as being produced by a specific selectable gene in effect. That’s IMHO a sort of modern genetic analog of phrenology, and wrong for roughly similar reasons. Instead, perhaps general brain development and sophistication lead intrinsically to greater ability to sense the value of beings other than your self.


  4. admin Post author

    By conventional thinkers, I assume you are talking about the majority (gene/individual selection) as opposed to the minority (group level selection)? Or perhaps you are thinking of both.

    Your other point, if I understand correctly, is more similar to Stephen Jay Gould’s — that at some point in brain evolution (no later than the Upper Paleolithic), multiple kinds of abilities became possible that were never targeted by selection or “foreseen” by it — that many abilities, including unselflessness and “pure” altruism (similar to fortuitous abilities or “spandrels” such as math and reading) — can simply be learned. I like this idea, not because it is congenial, but because I think it is true.

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