The Challenges of
the Paradox of Altruism

Another problem facing Evolutionary Ethics is the paradox of altruism. The theory of evolution is based on natural selection of individuals, the process in which the fittest organism survives and reproduces. If given a choice, an organism would not sacrifice itself for another; thus, true altruism, altruism beyond reciprocity or self-interest, is seemingly contradictory. If humans did evolve by individual natural selection, then humans could not possibly have true altruism, as this trait would have been selected out.

Because some species of organisms (i.e. ants, etc.) do not behave according to the theory of evolution by behaving in a manner that promotes the fitness of a group and at the expense of itself, some evolutionary ethicists have attempted to answer this paradox with the hypothesis that moral development was a means of group selection. Consequently, in order for the theory of evolution to be applied to moral development, the concept of natural selection must be altered to apply to groups instead of individuals.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that group selection cannot explain the evolution of morality. Morality is a one-group phenomenon and group selection is a many-group phenomenon. Morality is a concept that involves a single group - the group encompassing all moral beings, and, in contrast, group selection is a process among many competing groups. Regardless, if one were to suppose that altruism did evolve through group selection for the selective advantage to the group, moral beings would still have difficulty exhibiting true altruism or any concern for those outside of their group.

Given the logical problems of this paradox, many evolutionists are concluding that morality did not evolve or perhaps is an adaptation of other aspects of human nature that did evolve. Thus Darwin, and Spencer’s theories fail because of the paradox of altruism, and many evolutionists are moving towards Sociobiology and Meme Theory.

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