If Altruism Is In Our Nature, Why Are We All So Selfish?

27/02/2017 11:18
Anup Shah via Getty Images

Early this year, I had a meeting to attend after work. I had never been there before, so with my phone broken, I had planned ahead and printed the directions off before I left. I set off on a leisurely stroll from the Houses of Parliament to the British Museum, where my meeting was. However, when I arrived, I realised that I had forgotten to write down the house number of where I was attending my meeting. Panicking slightly about the time, I wandered around trying to find someone to be able to help me out; all I needed to do was to check my emails to find out the house number that I was looking for. Before long, three girls walked around the corner, heading towards my direction, and I breathed a sigh of relief. As they walked towards me, I politely explained to them that I had broken my phone, and was attending a meeting that I'd never been to before along this road. I had printed directions but had forgotten to write the house number down. I explained that I was now running late and asked nicely if I could use one of their phones to check my emails. I would be two minutes and then I'd be out of their way.

To my absolute dismay, they flat out refused to help me. They could have done, I'm sure. I didn't look particularly dangerous or threatening. They clearly all had 3G phones on them, and I was clearly a little bit helpless. Instead, they all looked at each other awkwardly; unsure as to how they were going to tell me no in so many words. They continued to ask me to repeat myself as to why I needed their help, as if they didn't believe what I was saying. They looked at each other back and forth, hesitating a little, before simply walking away with a false "sorry" on their departure. It might sound a bit dramatic, but I was so taken aback by the fact that these girls didn't give me a hand. Collectively, they had instead made me feel like a bit of an idiot, and acted like there was something wrong with me. They had really embarrassed me to be honest, and I was so thrown that they didn't help me out. It stayed with me all night, and on my way home, I couldn't stop wondering why it really has become the norm to not help people out anymore.

That same week, I was fortunate enough to meet John Bird, the founder and owner of The Big Issue. As I walked him around the Houses of Parliament, desperate to impress him, I went on to profusely tell him how I buy and read The Big Issue every week without fail. I even had to drop in the fact that I had been recently encouraging my family and friends to buy it. But to be honest, that really shouldn't be an achievement. Sparing £2.50 a week in order to help somebody work their way out of poverty, quite frankly, shouldn't be anything special; but I am one of the few people that I know that does it. When I stop on a Monday morning to get mine from a guy outside Waterloo station, I am usually the only person in all of the crowds of people doing so. Why don't the others? Are they really too busy, too skint? Does it really never come across people's minds that it would be a good idea to help him out? Or do they honestly believe that his situation is his responsibility alone, and nobody else's to worry about?

It's like tax avoidance; probably the political issue that gets under my skin more than any other. Anyone who knows me knows that when it comes to politics, I am incredibly pragmatic, and will strive see both sides of the argument and find answers that can benefit as many people across the spectrum as possible. A typical centre-left fence-sitter, who thinks that our democracy has much more to offer than party-political tribalism, but that suits me just fine. However, no matter what colours you decide to pin yourself to, the attitude that seems to be shared by so many, that it is perfectly acceptable to dodge your tax, is beyond me. I have this debate with people on a regular basis, and the answer of those that excuse tax avoidance, is always "everyone does it - we would all do it if we could."

Oh well that makes it perfectly acceptable then! If everyone does it, why bother at all? When the use of food-banks in the UK is at a record high, funding for schools is being cut, and we have an NHS that is practically on its knees; when you have reached a point in your life where you are lucky enough to be earning a decent amount of money, why should you pay back into the system in order to benefit those less fortunate than yourself? Why should you part with your hard-earned cash in order to pay for others to go to school, or to get good quality health care? Why bother helping those that were less fortunate, had less supportive families and fewer opportunities to grasp than you did? It seems that even when you have enough money to go around, you should be taking care of yourself and nobody else. If other people weren't as lucky as you, then so be it.

Where on earth did this attitude come from? When did it become the norm to refuse someone assistance when they are in need, to believe that you are too busy to take thirty seconds and the price of a coffee to help someone work their way out of poverty, or that you are somehow above paying your fair share in order to help those around you receive a decent standard of living? When did we all become so selfish, and why?

As someone who is a biology graduate, who developed a fascination with anthropology by the time I had finished my degree, I always try and look at things through that lens; attempting to understand human behaviour from an evolutionary perspective. Why do we act the way that we do, and how did it help us survive up until now? But the thing that puzzles me about our current way of doing things is that it goes completely against our biology. We are social animals, who evolved in groups. Even in our most primitive days, there is evidence to suggest that we have always looked after our old and our weak. It is the reason why volunteering gives us a rush of endorphins and makes us feel good. It is the reason that we have the ability to be empathetic and understanding of others' emotions. It is the reason that we know what right and wrong is instinctively, without the need to be told by one holy book or the other. We are as successful as we are, the most dominant species on the planet, because we learned to work together and look after one another. It is altruism that is in our nature, not individualism.

Maybe it started with Thatcher, Reagan and the rise of neoliberalism. Perhaps it is the dog-eat-dog mentality that has become the norm in so many industries - from the finance sector right through to the arts. Or it could be our addiction to social media, and the narcissism that has arisen from constantly striving for more likes on Facebook, more followers on Twitter, more matches on Tinder.

Maybe this could just be a natural progression of how our society has moved, with more people getting educated and more women choosing careers over motherhood, our family units are not what they were. And our deserting of religion and decreasing status as a 'Christian country' has also taken with it the communities that developed out of belonging to a church. Or perhaps I am wrong, and Homo sapiens have just reached the next stage in their evolutionary cycle. This was part of Mother Nature's grand plan all along; it is just something that we've never experienced before.

Almost all of the problems that we face as a society are solvable. We have enough resources on this planet to go around, and technology is moving at such a pace that solutions to the majority of our challenges will be solvable in the very near future, if they aren't already. The majority of the population live in communities with people around us, to take care of us and to give us the regular interaction that we need. But we have allowed our own self-indulgence to get in the way. We have been sucked into a mentality that tells us that we don't need to look out for anybody else. We have convinced ourselves that we don't have time, don't have money, and don't have any responsibility to. And we are blissfully unaware of the impact that it is having on us; whether it is social isolation or a sharp increase in mental health issues.

We have gone against billions of years of evolution to normalise an attitude of individualism, of narcissism, and of greed, and all of the evidence suggests that it is not good for us. So why do we do it exactly? If altruism is in our nature, why are we all so selfish?