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Perspective | Magazine

Humans aren’t born selfish — just the opposite — and that’s reason for hope

Collaboration and empathy are deeply human traits. And they’re exactly what we need to fight climate change.

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Long ago, when the climate underwent natural variations, our ancestors adapted. They left dwindling forests, found new sources of food, and invented complex tools.

But now, we are causing the climate to change — and this time, we have been unable to adapt. By the end of the century, the climate will likely have warmed by several degrees, and the worst impacts will be felt by young people and future generations.

As we come face to face with this dire scenario, a dominant narrative has emerged — one we hear everywhere, from our students or implicit in films such as the recent climate apocalypse comedy Don’t Look Up. The narrative is this: Humans are naturally selfish, unable to overcome our ingrained greed — for oil, or money, or meat — in time to prevent the catastrophe that we know is coming.


Ever since Darwin, many scientists — and many other people — have assumed natural selection is antithetical to morality. In the contest for survival of the fittest, altruism seems to be a losing strategy. From an orthodox Darwinian perspective, human nature is selfish and morality is nothing more than a thin cultural veneer. We may begin as friends, but we’re quick to shed our moral skins when we can get away with it.

But this story misses something, simultaneously dooming us and letting us off the hook. In our work, we research how human morality is in fact deep-seated, a tool we evolved to help us survive, and as much a part of us as language or walking upright. Humans are not only innately moral, but also possess capacities for improving their morality.

For proof, we need only page back through our own history. After parting ways from the ancestors of chimpanzees, our human ancestors began to live in larger and more cooperative groups — to more effectively face off against fierce animals, hunt and forage for food together, and collaboratively raise offspring. If there are a lot of people around, you’re more likely to survive and reproduce if you happen to be better at inferring what others are thinking, making plans for the future, and negotiating conflict.


These large and complex social orders would also not have been stable without morality. Humans needed to be smart to survive, but they also needed to care about one another, follow rules, hold others accountable, and reason together about the right thing to do.

Without these moral capacities, we never would have been able to cooperate so richly, across so many fluctuating environments. And without morality, we never would have stood out intellectually from our ape peers.

After the birth of Homo sapiens, morality continued to evolve in dramatic ways, no longer via our genes but through culture. Humans evolved what we call “institutional morality.” Before, moral feelings and norms governed behavior within the local band. New social institutions, however, scaled up human morality so that it encompassed larger collectives. For example, religious institutions fashioned a shared identity, grounded in a storied past, and the moral circle expanded. Bands were linked together within an overarching tribe.

Why was it so important to be part of a tribe? Many reasons, but foremost was that it entailed a larger “collective brain,” as Harvard human evolutionary biology professor Joseph Henrich puts it. In tribes, there were more people to generate new ideas, filter and store the best ideas, and recombine them in novel ways.


Without institutional morality, humans would not have had the collective brainpower to develop modern knowledge and technology. They would not have been able to adapt to new and challenging environments across the globe. And now, our collective brain is larger than our ancestors could have ever imagined.

It’s clear what needs to happen: Experts agree that we must end our reliance on fossil fuels and pursue safe technologies that will reduce carbon in the atmosphere and acidity in the oceans. That will take an immense amount of cooperation across countries and institutions, and a lot of — likely irreparable — damage has already been done.

But a growing body of research into human morality shows that we are not helpless. Too many people despair that we can achieve collective action in time to save humanity from “human nature.” But we have to remember that so many of the things that have made the world what it is — collaboration, empathy, collective thinking — are actually intrinsic to our species. Just as our ancestors expanded their moral circles to include not just the local band but the entire tribe, we can develop institutions that expand our moral circles to include the entire globe. There is good reason for hope.

Victor Kumar is an assistant professor of philosophy and director of the Mind and Morality Lab at Boston University. Richmond Campbell is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Dalhousie University. Their book, “A Better Ape: The Evolution of the Moral Mind and How it Made us Human”, was published April 5. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.