The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneJanuary 2007 : Comfort Zone ONLINE
Book Review: Unto Others: The Evolution and
Psychology of Unselfish Behavior

by Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson, Harvard University Press, 1998

Note: This book is perfect for the lay person with some background in biology or psychology. Otherwise, David Sloane Wilson tells me that his new book contains the same information in a far more readable way. It is Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Changes the Way we Think About our Lives. Delacourte, 2007

In my world of psychology, and of science generally, evolution rules. In your world it might be different, although the larger literate culture largely takes the perspective of science. What does it mean for evolution to be the basic theory behind all biological and psychological thinking? To most people it means that we all are basically selfish. Survival of the fittest. The whole living world works on a principle of selfishness.

Faith in Selfishness

Faith in evolution is understood to undermine just about all religious beliefs about creation. Of course you can update your religious beliefs by saying that God put evolution into action, or that God is behind (or is) the Big Bang. But a creator always implies "intelligent design," and the theory of evolution states that God is an unnecessary causal force because all the complexity around us developed by the selection of chance mutations over long, long, periods. The creation of life requires nothing but continued selection among chance variations. Life is not "progressing" towards something higher, with humans being the highest. Yes, there is a tendency towards greater complexity, but when the environment changes, and it always does; something new will be selected for--quite possibly less complexity.

Of course you could say that God is something too mysterious to understand, certainly by human theories, including the theory of evolution. Actually, our ignorance is quite likely. Our nearest relatives, chimps, have only the tiniest glimpse of understanding the breadth and complexity of the universe compared to us. But surely that means we, too, see only a tiny glimpse. Who really knows if the random variation is actually random?

It many ways it is harder for a religious or spiritual person to deal with the part of evolutionary theory that emphasizes selection, meaning that every individual in every species must be looking out for its self so that only the fittest variations survive. Fitness to survive in a particular habitat is the only selection criterion according to current theory.

Some addendums had to be added, of course, to explain what looks like love, altruism, human morality, and the like. One is the "selfish gene" theory--that it is our DNA that wants to survive, not us, and we have evolved to be willing to die in order to see our DNA live. This explains seemingly selfless behaviors such as parenting.

Another addendum then had to be made, "kin selection," because sometimes animals sacrifice food, energy or life itself for individuals who are not their offspring. The kin selection answer is that, although we prefer to have our own offspring survive because they carry the highest percentage of our DNA, sometimes there are reasons individuals do reproduce--for example, only the alpha male in a pack mates with the females. Challenging that can mean death or a life alone, unprotected by the pack. So the next best strategy is for the other males to become seemingly self-sacrificing "uncles," protecting the offspring of the alpha male. But supposedly they do it only because the uncles share some DNA with the offspring.

Yet another addendum is that, in humans, morals may develop that require self-sacrifice, but these are needed exactly because without them everyone would only look after themselves and their closest kin, and in the long run that may be a poor strategy. It may be better for the individual's survival to build long-term alliances, learn complex teamwork behaviors, or distribute food equally so that one's own offspring will be fed. Thus "moral," short-term self-sacrificing behavior evolved supposedly only in order to safeguard individuals who may not realize when these behaviors are in their best interests. That is, individuals probably survive better when they are born into cultures with some moral system and accept the rules.

Finally, according to this perspective, at times people may behave altruistically and only be conscious of altruistic motives, but that means nothing. Again, even a conscious sense of compassionate motives may have evolved to see that individuals would do what would prove to be best for the survival of their DNA, but the underlying reason for the morals and the behavior is that it supports individual survival.

Our continued faith in selfishness does matter. For example, Sober and Wilson report research that compared students' altruism before and after studying economics, which generally assumes each individual is trying to maximize the goods available to them--nothing else ultimately matters to an individual. After studying economics, students are less altruistic. If you realize that everyone is out for themselves, no matter what they say, then why not skip the dishonesty of seeming to care for others and just go for what you want? Why even allow your DNA badger you into mating? Or even caring about your relatives. Now that you know what's up, you have a choice.

For those of us who sense the far ranging consequences of such attitudes, it is very important to know whether the facts argue for altruism as a possible motivation too, does selfishness reign supreme. Those facts are what decide how we look at the world and each other: There's hope for the human race or there is not.

In short, the theories that are researched and reported in esoteric biology journals really do matter. That is why this book is so interesting--it does not attack those who make the theories by denying evolution itself, but by beating them at their own game.

HSPs Say No, and Receive Some Help

I think most HSPs find it difficult to have this faith in selfishness, but think there is no justification for their reluctance. We just hold to our intuitive truth and go on trying to be altruistic. But in the back of our minds we either have to scoff at science itself or know we are being intentionally naïve.

Elliott Sober, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and David Sloan Wilson, at the State University of New York, Binghamton, offer another solution. They argue for altruism being the result of evolution itself. Again, this might seem obvious to some of you, although you know better than to say it in the presence of anyone familiar with evolutionary theory. But you would never even think to say it if you have been exposed to very much evolutionary theory, as I had been. A voice would be telling you, "There is no altruism because there is no group selection--it's all impossible."

Group selection is the key issue for altruism. Hence that is where Sober and Wilson begin. Since the 1960s "group selection" has been deemed impossible, and without group selection, there can be no basis for true altruism--the willingness to sacrifice for others one's own short and long-term best interests. That is, to be an altruist requires that on some occasions you would (not necessarily that you actually have) sacrifice for others the continuance of your own DNA through yourself or even your kin. In Darwinian theory, only group selection would allow altruism because, while the individual altruist (or his or her DNA) could not survive, the group with altruists in it would survive better than other groups.

Group Selection Is Fun

What I enjoyed most about this book was the way it sets out to demolish this long-standing, ferociously defended idea that there can be no group selection, when though Darwin himself had said it was the only explanation for certain behaviors. Every leading evolutionary theorist has said the same, and then failed to give group selection further consideration. To argue for group selection has been tantamount to professional suicide. Hence Sober and Wilson convey the sense that there has been an irrational stubbornness around the subject, as if it were not macho to argue for the group over the individual and compassion over selfishness. So as they take on this monolithic view, one is reading about a real David and Goliath battle. And David (Sloan Wilson, along with Elliott Sober) wins.

The examples are great fun, too, if you are interested in animal life. One is of a species of worm that spends its life cycle in snails, ants, and cattle. A mutation apparently occurred in the worms while they were in the snails, so that when six, let's say, are eaten by an ant, the worm with this particular weird mutation goes to the ant's brain and alters the ant's behavior so that the ant spends time out on the ends of leaves instead of hidden deep in the grass. In the process of burrowing into the brain, this worm loses its chance to enter the next phase of the worms' life cycle. But this change in the ant's brain and hence behavior causes the ant to be eaten by cattle as they graze, and this brings all of the worms living in that ant to where they want to be next, inside of a cow's stomach.

If individual selection were all that mattered, six worms surviving would be better than five. But the groups of worms are in various ants, and those worms living in ants that are eaten by cows are going to survive more in the long run. Since a self-sacrificing "altruist" makes this possible, even though that worm is very unfit (dead) when compared to the "selfish" worms that live, the groups with an altruist worm are far more likely to pass on their DNA than a group of six without such an ant. Hence, over time, the ratio of altruist to selfish ants will increase until reaching a stable level, at least while the environment supports the worms' overall life cycle.

But perhaps the best story about group selection is one involving chickens. Most HSPs are probably aware (we don't forget these things) that hens kept in group cages to lay eggs have to have their beak tips cut off, a very painful procedure, because they become so frantic and stressed that they will peck each other to death otherwise. And still the mortality of hens due to stress and aggression is close to 50%. This is because hens have been selected, as individuals, for egg production. But apparently the best layers were also the nastiest chickens! When in a mixed group of hens, these chickens could produce more eggs (I made a typo here and typed egos). But when they were all together, being nasty to each other, their average egg production declined.

So group selection was tried instead of individual selection--the groups in each cage were compared, rather than the individuals, and the groups that laid the most eggs were kept. Egg production increase 160% in six generations, and mortality due to fighting was so low that beak trimming could be stopped. In effect, the breeders had stopped selecting for selfish individuals and had started to select for groups with more altruists--those that were innately gentler with each other.

The Averaging Fallacy

The "averaging fallacy" is the term Wilson and Sober use for the logical error that would give rise to the idea that individual hens that are high egg producers are going to amount to a flock with higher average egg production, or that sixty surviving worms is always better than fifty. The mistake is made when one does not take into account the separateness of groups within the larger average--that groups with fifty surviving are not comparable to the groups with sixty if the groups with fifty will eventually prove to be more fit.

Here's another example of such an error, and a good puzzle to throw into a conversation when things lag: At UC Berkeley in the 1970s there was a question as to whether the graduate schools were biased against women, since men outnumbered women graduate students. But when each department was studied, women were being admitted to graduate programs equally often. How could that be?

The answer was that women were applying to more competitive programs, in which there was a limit to how many could be accepted, even if the overall number of women admitted was increased. To demonstrate, if a competitive department accepts only 30 percent, and 90 women and 10 men apply, and there is no discrimination, it will accept 27 women and 3 men. Sounds good. But another, less competitive department accepts 60 percent but receives applicants from only 10 women compared to 90 men, so it will accept 6 women and 54 men. In all, over both programs, 100 men applied and 100 women applied. But only 33 women were accepted compared to 57 men. If this were a trend throughout the university, which it was, the average number of women admitted had to be low.

Again, the "averaging fallacy" would lead us to say that men are more successful at getting into graduate school, more "fit" in that sense, because you would only be considering the bottom line of 33 women versus 57 men. This is why group selection has been overlooked--again 57 only seems "better" than 33, just as six surviving worms only seems better than five. It's the averaging-over-groups fallacy. Group selection is the answer to both puzzles, in that when groups are considered rather than the individuals in them, one gets very different answers.

Group Selection and HSPs

What does this have to do with being highly sensitive? I suspect and perhaps fear a bit that sensitivity is a form of altruism--the group is better for having us, even if we are not always as well off. I have not yet tested to see whether HSPs are more altruistic--I plan to soon. But it is certainly my impression, and hinted at by the conscientious question on measure we validated carefully, as well as an item that was just as good but we did not use: "Would you be willing to sit at the bedside of a dying stranger and comfort them." HSPs said yes to this more often. That seems quite generous, especially if the dying stranger might have something contagious, or simply use up our energy, which otherwise we could expend elsewhere.

So suppose that, compared to non-HSPs, HSPs sometimes behave in ways that threaten their very survival, whether that is sacrificing themselves for others or simply providing society with the benefits of their good qualities, even though the side effects of sensitivity for them could be greater vulnerability to stress, anxiety, and depression. Yet if groups with HSPs in them have survived better, then the DNA causing high sensitivity will be selected for. How many HSPs will be in groups will depend on the balance between the benefits for the group and the costs to the individual HSP. That often seems to settle around 20% for many species.

I used to joke that when a group of prehistoric humans were sitting around the campfire and a lion was creeping up on them all, the sensitive ones would alert the others to the lion's prowling and insist that something be done. But the non-sensitive ones would be the ones more likely to go out and face the lion. Hence there are more of them than there are of us, since they are willing and even happy to do impulsive, dangerous things that will kill many of us. But also, they are willing to protect us and hunt for us, if we are not as good at killing large animals, because the group needs us. We have been the healers, trackers, shamans, strategists, and of course the first to sense danger. So together the two types survive better than a group of just one type or the other.

Whenever I described this humorous scenario, I always felt guilty because I knew I was speaking here of group selection, which I had been taught did not exist. But I said it anyway because it seemed so plausible that it worked just this way in early human groups.

Sober and Wilson give a similar example--suppose a herd of antelope or zebra has a few members who are constantly stopping their grazing to use their keen senses to watch for predators. Sensing danger first, these herd members might have a better survival rate. But that would not be so if they choose to graze at the edges of the herd, as they tend to do. And they would certainly be using up more energy by being watchful, which means that others could graze more and watch less. Herds with such sensitive, watchful individuals would survive better, and so continue to breed, and so continue to have some sensitive individuals born in the group, whatever happened to some of the individual sensitive members. Not all of these sensitive herd members have to survive, remember--just enough to give birth to more like them.

Another way for thinking that sensitivity might be synonymous with altruism is that research finds that empathy increases the likelihood of being helpful. People are more likely to be kind to a complete stranger if they feel empathy--for example, if they are face to face when looking at them, or even just told to listen with empathy to the story of their plight. Why is this? Altruism occurs within a group, and empathy would seem to make us feel like the person in need is "one of us." Since HSPs tend to feel more empathy for others, this research suggests that they are going to be more altruistic.

Of course the primary way that individual humans affect their groups is not through the percentage of altruistic DNA they leave behind, but by the values they promote. Do towns or business organizations survive to spread their culture further, or sell more sofas, or whatever they want to do, because of having some sensitive members arguing for teamwork, understanding, and serving the customer? I think so, although the data are yet to be gathered on that point.

Are There Altruistic Motives, Not Just Altruistic Behaviors?

The second part of this book focuses on the psychology of altruism. That is, it asks whether altruism exists as a human motive. It looks for cases in which an action not only has an altruistic effect, but whether that was the intention of the actor. There is evidence that rules out selfish motives in some situations. For example, it is not true that we are altruistic because we want others to like or trust us, or to avoid their punishment of us if we are selfish. People will be compassionate whether or not others will know what they did. Nor is it true that we are altruistic only to avoid discomfort of guilt. People will be altruistic even when they are given a good justification for not doing so.

However, it is difficult to truly disprove that selfishness is the ultimate motivation for an altruistic behavior. As said earlier, we might simply be not aware of how our selfishness evolved into a conscious motivation not to be selfish. The difficulties inherent in sorting out motivations make the second half of the book less satisfying than the first, as many would say who compare the study of biology to psychology. But Sober and Wilson seem to leave no way to doubt that altruistic, self-sacrificing behavior does occur throughout nature.

Don't Get Too Excited, However

There is a negative side to Sober and Wilson's reasoning: The absolute necessity of group selection. Groups must compete in order for true altruism to occur. And most of the violence today is not perpetrated by selfish individuals, damaging as that can be in other ways, but by competing for the survival of their DNA or their culture. Indeed, humans and the other great apes have an incredibly strong capacity to see the world of others as members of the in-group or the out-group. "Minimal group" studies find that if people merely stand in a circle and count off 1, 2, 3, 4, etcetera, and then those who said the odd numbers go to one end of the room and the evens go to another, then each group will be found, right then, to feel their group is superior.

There are ways to break down in-groups and cause people to include out-group members into their group. One is the old trick of both groups having to fight a third. My husband and I have written and researched for a long time a theory that leans toward eliminating the conflict. It is that humans are motivated to expand their self, which is good for their own survival, and a major way they do that is to include others into their self. The more that others are included, the more we treat them as if they were our self. We confuse them with ourselves. We give them as much as we'd give to ourselves, even if they would never know how we divided things. Our research even finds that the closer we are to someone, the more our brain activity when thinking of them overlaps with the brain activity typical of thinking about ourselves.

How does this help break down actual in-group-out-group mentality. There is a "contact hypothesis" that getting to know someone from an out-group reduces hostility towards that group. We have found that what matters is not just contact or some vague getting to know others, but that the closer you are interpersonally to an out-group member, the more they and their group are considered to be part of your in-group. We have even created a means of making a pair of people as close to each other they are to their closest friend, and it is done in just two hours, by orchestrating a series of more and more personal discussion topics. When we include a new friend in ourselves, we also include things about them such as their group membership.

But pairs of people becoming friends is not going to have much impact. A little more comes from our finding that when other members of an in-group see one member feeling close and friendly to an out-group member, they all feel less prejudice and hostility towards that out-group. This is something that could be done through the media, and already is to some extent in movies and sit-coms.

Perhaps most important, some humans (many of them HSPs) strive to view the entire world or the whole human race or all beings as part of themselves, included into themselves. That is, altruism can be expanded by enlarging its ecological fit until it applies to everyone.


February 2006 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Latest Research : What HSPs See: Our Brain Is Not as Easily Confused by Culture and Context
HSP Living: What HSPs Can Give and Get from Animals and Babies
Book Review : Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior - by Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson, Harvard University Press, 1998

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