Reprinted from the October 2004 issue of Science & Theology News. Used with permission.

Is there an evolutionary reason why some people behave more altruistically than others?

According to recent research out of Binghamton University in New York, in order for people to be "pro-social" - wanting to help those around them even when there might not be anything to gain - three aspects of their lives have to be in order.

"You need to be trying to be pro-social in a pro-social environment and have personal resources to be pro-social," said David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist and director of the study. "If any of those things are absent, you become less pro-social in your behavior."

In other words, a person must first try to be good, but the next two steps are a bit more complicated, requiring factors like a supportive living environment and stable financial status.

There have always been questions regarding theories about selfishness derived from evolutionary theory. Though Wilson's study is not definitively against the idea of a "selfish gene," its findings back group-selection theory - the idea that selfless behaviors are advantageous within a group but not between groups.

As a believer of group selection theory, Wilson said he feels that "selfishness beats altruism within a group, but an altruistic group beats a selfish group."

The research which started about a year and a half ago, is based on the experience sampling method, or ESM, created by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. ESM is a surveying process that not only charts how people feel, but also how they feel during certain activities and with certain people. Each participant first completes an extensive survey, and are then given a beeper where, upon each beep, they have to fill out a questionnaire regarding what they are doing and their feelings.

In the study that Wilson used, three times over a five-year period Csikszentmihalyi investigated how 1,000 teenagers from 33 high schools across the country prepared themselves for the work force. Wilson took Csikszentmihalyi's research and used it to explore altruism by analyzing 17 questions in the questionnaire relating to pro-sociality, as well as their ESM actions.

"The beauty of the ESM method is that it is like an invisible observer perched on your shoulder that takes a snapshot, not just of your external circumstances, but also your internal thoughts and feelings," said Wilson.

Using this information, Wilson is finding that, along a selflessness scale from none to completely self-sacrificing, people fall into distinct categories.

He said some people are uncooperative by choice, and others are "quite stressed and are low-pro-social by virtue of situation, not by virtue of their basic goals." Findings to this point indicate that the third group, with a lack of resources, also tends toward selfishness.

Wilson said he hopes this study will not only open people's eyes to the application of evolution to their everyday lives, but also will show people that they need to support each other in order to maximize unselfish actions. Extending pro-sociality can only reap positive benefits for society, Wilson said.

"Not only is cooperation and these positive things a part of our nature, but they're healthy and they make us successful in the long run," he said.

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