How are Biological Evolution and Psychological Altruism Related?

How are Biological Evolution and Psychological Altruism Related?


Evolutionary biologists use the concepts of altruism and selfishness to describe the effects that a behavior has on an organism’s fitness–its ability to survive and reproduce. A mindless creature can be an evolutionary altruist, if it helps another individual at cost to itself. The everyday concepts of altruism and egoism are quite different; they describe the psychological motives that people have in acting as they do. The theory of psychological egoism says that human beings have as their only ultimate goal the improvement of their own situation; this theory denies that people ever have altruistic ultimate motives. Psychologists and philosophers have debated whether psychological egoism is the correct theory of human motivation. This presentation will begin with some history; describing why the issue of evolutionary altruism has been important in biology. We will then consider whether evolutionary considerations can help clarify the psychological problem of motivation. If our minds are the product of natural selection, does this tell us anything about whether psychological egoism is likely to be true?

  • Dialogue 5
    9 sessions
  • October 3, 1995
    Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India
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Elliot Sober

Elliott Sober (USA, 1948) received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Harvard University in 1974. Since then he has been an Assistant/Associate/Full Professor and is currently Vilas Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His main area of research is the philosophy of science, focusing especially on philosophical questions raised by evolutionary biology. His publications include: The Nature of Selection, Reconstructing the Past, Core Questions in Philosophy; The Philosophy of Biology, and From a Biological Point of View.