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From dark hearts comes the kindness of humankind

January 22, 2013
Princeton University
The kindness of humankind most likely developed from our more sinister and self-serving tendencies, according to research that suggests society's rules against selfishness are rooted in the very exploitation they condemn.

The kind­ness of humankind most likely devel­oped from our more sin­is­ter and self-serving ten­den­cies, accord­ing to Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity and Uni­ver­sity of Ari­zona research that sug­gests society's rules against self­ish­ness are rooted in the very exploita­tion they condemn.

The report in the jour­nal Evo­lu­tion pro­poses that altru­ism -- society's pro­tec­tion of resources and the col­lec­tive good by pun­ish­ing "cheaters" -- did not develop as a reac­tion to avarice. Instead, com­mu­nal dis­avowal of greed orig­i­nated when com­pet­ing self­ish indi­vid­u­als sought to con­trol and can­cel out one another. Over time, the direct efforts of the dom­i­nant fat cats to con­tain a few com­peti­tors evolved into a community-wide desire to guard its own well-being.

The study authors pro­pose that a sys­tem of greed dom­i­nat­ing greed was sim­ply eas­ier for our human ances­tors to man­age. In this way, the work chal­lenges dom­i­nant the­o­ries that self­ish and altru­is­tic social arrange­ments formed inde­pen­dently -- instead the two struc­tures stand as evo­lu­tion­ary phases of group inter­ac­tion, the researchers write.

Sec­ond author Andrew Gallup, a for­mer Prince­ton post­doc­toral researcher in ecol­ogy and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­ogy now a vis­it­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Bard Col­lege, worked with first author Omar Eldakar, a for­mer Ari­zona post­doc­toral fel­low now a vis­it­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor of biol­ogy at Ober­lin Col­lege, and William Driscoll, an ecol­ogy and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­ogy doc­toral stu­dent at Arizona.

To test their hypoth­e­sis, the researchers con­structed a sim­u­la­tion model that gauged how a com­mu­nity with­stands a sys­tem built on altru­is­tic pun­ish­ment, or selfish-on-selfish pun­ish­ment. The authors found that altru­ism demands a lot of ini­tial expen­di­ture for the group -- in terms of com­mu­nal time, resources and risk of reprisal from the pun­ished -- as well as advanced lev­els of cog­ni­tion and cooperation.

On the other hand, a con­struct in which a few prof­li­gate play­ers keep like-minded indi­vid­u­als in check involves only those mem­bers of the com­mu­nity -- every­one else can pas­sively enjoy the ben­e­fits of fewer peo­ple tak­ing more than their share. At the same time, the reign­ing indi­vid­u­als enjoy uncon­tested spoils and, in some cases, reverence.

Social orders main­tained by those who bend the rules play out in nature and human his­tory, the authors note: Tree wasps that police hives to make sure that no mem­ber other than the queen lays eggs will often lay illicit eggs them­selves. Can­cer cells will pre­vent other tumors from form­ing. Medieval knights would pil­lage the same civil­ians they read­ily defended from invaders, while neigh­bor­hoods ruled by the Ital­ian Mafia tra­di­tion­ally had the low­est lev­els of crime.

What comes from these arrange­ments, the researchers con­clude, is a sense of order and equal­ity that the group even­tu­ally takes upon itself to enforce, thus giv­ing rise to altruism.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Princeton University. Original written by Mor­gan Kelly. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Omar Tonsi Eldakar, Andrew C. Gallup, William Wallace Driscoll. When Hawks Give Rise To Doves: The Evo­lu­tion and Tran­si­tion of Enforce­ment Strate­gies. Evolution, 2013; DOI: 10.1111/evo.12031

Cite This Page:

Princeton University. "From dark hearts comes the kindness of humankind." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 January 2013. <>.
Princeton University. (2013, January 22). From dark hearts comes the kindness of humankind. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 24, 2024 from
Princeton University. "From dark hearts comes the kindness of humankind." ScienceDaily. (accessed April 24, 2024).

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