The altruists survive

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“There are these two explorers in the jungle and they suddenly hear a lion roar. And one of them starts looking for a place where both of them can hide. And the other one starts putting on his running shoes. And the first person says to the second person, “You’re crazy. You can’t run faster than a lion.” And the second one turns to the first one and says, “I don’t need to run faster than the lion. All I need to do is run faster than you.”

Without my daily forced commute, I’m not finding that I’m listening to a lot of podcasts at the moment. Instead of multiple a week, I typically only listen to 20-30 minutes of a show while shaving my head (this being my haircut of choice now, it takes a little while). Last week’s choice was a Tim Ferriss conversation with the Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (never heard of him until now), and it contained some gems, especially the following portion.

So now this is where Darwin arrived at, that natural selection, where there’s competition for scarce resources, where you have to outpace others in order to survive, came to the conclusion that it’s the selfish guy, number two guy, who is putting on his running shoes, who will survive the lion. Whereas, it’s the first guy, the altruist, who’s looking for a way of saving both of them, who gets eaten by the lion.

So the ruthless survive and the altruists go extinct. That was Darwin’s conclusion. And Darwin was sharp enough to see that that conclusion is simply not true. Because, in every single society that you ever find, it is the altruists who are admired. So how did altruists survive at all, when natural selection seems to favor the egoist? And eventually, Darwin found a solution. He didn’t write it in Origin of Species, he wrote it in his book The Descent of Man. And he said, “Any tribe whose members were altruistic, who were always willing to come to the aid of one another, would be stronger than any tribe whose members were not altruistic.” Or, as we would put it today, we pass on our genes as individuals, but we survive as groups.

I recently wrote about being unimpressed with the current leader of the US, as well as the notion that there is something sick in the way that people are treating one another, and those sentiments about Darwin and the survival of the fittest being untrue for human beings hit a matching chord. Sacks asserts that the focus on I instead of We has gotten so out of balance in certain countries/cultures that it’s no wonder that two of the countries that have had the hardest time dealing with COVID (the US and UK) are two of the countries where this attitude is ingrained in the culture to such a degree it’s invisible most of the time to a majority of it’s members (yours included).

Now that I’m reading children’s books regularly every night, I see this theme of helping others and putting the collective good ahead of your own as a consistent theme. Where or when or how does the opposite message get in the way? Probably through drinking a soup of standardized tests, superstar sports celebrity-ism, get-a-good-job capitalism, and Hollywood consumerism I’m guessing, but I’m quickly getting out of my depth. In any case, it’s hard not to see this intense belief that I am exceptional as a liability in the new world as it unfolds.

Groups only exist when we put the we before the I, when we accept collective responsibility for the common good. There is no other way of survival.

I’m a runner but I don’t want to run faster than you, I’d prefer to see you on the trail with me. Here’s to the altruists prevailing!

3 responses

  1. I call bullshit! All I remember is when you and I were gonna do that St. Patrick’s day run “together” and you smoked me and I was left wandering around Seattle center getting chased by lions.

    1. Ha! I didn’t say run “with” you, just that I’d see you on the trail. Behind me of course. 😉

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