Survival of the Kindest: The Evolution of Sympathy

By Faye Flam
Inquirer Staff Writer

TONY AUTH / The Philadelphia Inquirer (

Darwinism is more often associated with the liberal left than the conservative right, but it’s moved a long way across the political spectrum from Darwin’s day, when it was embraced by advocates of free-market economics, colonialism, and similar ideas today associated with the right.

Apparently, Darwinism is still sometimes invoked in arguments for economic conservatism. It’s reflected in a recent e-mail I received from a reader: “Maybe you should write about the current reversing of evolution by humans, using technology. . . . Fitness, in humans, means the intelligence and ability to deliver a healthy child. . . . Today, especially in the USA, the least fit make the most offspring while the more fit have the least children. The most fit pay to insure the survival and future breeding of the least fit.”

Let’s leave aside the part connecting fitness and intelligence for another column, since the term fitness has a very specific meaning in evolution apart from what people try to achieve in the gym. Instead, I’ll focus on the idea that helping people interferes with evolution.

I find this letter so intriguing because it reflects the reaction some people had to Darwin’s publication of On The Origin of Species in 1859.

According to University of Massachusetts historian Diane Paul, people of Darwin’s time realized that evolution was an ongoing process and that our policies and medical advances would influence its direction.

Some preached that charity and social services impeded evolution – a position that came to be called social Darwinism.

Many Christians of the time opposed that attitude, believing mankind should help the poor and the sick.

Paul said Darwin’s writing reflected mixed reactions to the ideas that would later be called social Darwinism. He did, however, hit on an important argument against it in his second book, The Descent of Man: Sympathetic instincts that lead us to aid the helpless are themselves products of natural selection.

That idea has stood the test of time.

“Evolution made us all the things we are by nature – it made us cooperative and selfish,” said David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University. Evolution, he said, left us with the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly.

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Survival of the kindest: The evolution of sympathy | Philly | 05/02/2011

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