Monday, October 27, 2008

Selfish Does Not Always Equal Bad

I have often heard that humans are inherently selfish. Each time I hear this I have to laugh a bit as the comment is almost always stated as a negative, not as a simple observation. It is true that the selfishness intrinsic to humanity has many negative aspects, but its inherent existance itself is not necessarily a negative.

In fact, this trait is one of the key factors that has driven our specie's evolution. Without a certain level of selfishness, our specie would have been doomed before it even emerged. All species must look after their own genes and their propagation, be they direct or those of the individual's family. Humans are no exception, we have had to look after our own descendants and relatives to prosper as a specie (although due to our specie moving from a regional to a semi-global one, this has broadened our scope of 'family' dramatically). Is this to say that one should look after ones direct genetic lineages while ignoring those of others? Of course not, as that would go against basic humanistic principles. What it is simply saying is that our specie required a certain level of selfishness to prosper and evolve in the first place. Due to our enhanced abstract thinking capabilities, this principle can be broadened considerably. This broadening is one of the key reasons why human selfishness (and the selfishness of many other species as well) is not inherently wrong.

When I say selfish, I want to clarify for those who see the word solely as a negative. In this instance, selfish simply means doing an act while thinking that the individual performing the act will get something in return. This return can be a specific as a physical reward or it could be as abstract as an increase in endorphins and other neuro-chemicals (a feel good moment). There is a very good reason for this. When our specie emerged on the plains of Africa, resources were quite limited. As such, any action would have to be gauged carefully to determine if the energy usage would be worth it. With this environmental pressure, the trait of selfishness was evolved to keep our specie from declining.

However, it was not taken to the level where it was harmful to other individuals, as that in itself would be detrimental to the specie (and more particularly, the propagation of the individual's genes). It was offset by a desire to do what would also aid the group (because if the group did not prosper, the individual would have no chance to do so). This is where the desire to do good for those around you most likely came from (it also explains why the desire is so much stronger for those with a genetic or communal link).

So no matter the act, there is a selfish desire behind that act (even if it is self sacrifice, as this would help one's genes, be they direct or family, continue on). This does not lessen the good behind the act, as it will be good regardless. What it does though, is put into context selfishness and its role in our specie's continuation.

Obviously there are many forms of selfishness which are harmful, but those tend to be rather self evident (usually, at least). The point of this post has been to show that selfishness itself is not bad. In fact, it could be viewed as a positive, for if such selfishness did not exist, neither would any of us.

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