In peaceful, generous moments, we might believe – or just long to believe – that a genuine desire to help one another is something that sustains us. But then we remember Darwin and the grim competition inherent in “survival of the fittest,” and we allow, perhaps, this impression of science to scuttle our momentary vision of social harmony. That’s a shame because evolutionary biologists increasingly believe that this impression of science represents an incomplete reading of Darwin.
Fearing the obvious controversy, Darwin avoided discussing human beings and natural selection in his landmark On the Origin of Species. But 12 years later, in The Descent of Man, he hit the topic head on. And though he acknowledged the power of individual wants and needs, he identified a greater force within human evolution: the power of sympathy and the desire to cooperate. In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote, “[S]ocial qualities, the paramount importance of which to the lower animals is disputed by no one, were no doubt acquired by the progenitors of man in a similar manner, namely, through natural selection, aided by inherited habit…. [S]ympathy … will have been increased through natural selection; communities with the most sympathetic members would flourish best, rearing the greatest number of offspring…. Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected.”