Benevolence as an evolutionary force
Nancy Sherer

Jane Goodall observed chimps sharing meat. When a male chimp had meat, she reported, he had the option of sharing meat with other members of the group. Estrus females were very likely to receive a portion. Other males were also given meat. The male who had the meat had the option of sharing it with more dominant males. Anthropology has embraced a theory of dominance hierarchy based on aggressiveness, alliances, and physical competition. They don't consider a different possibility: that having meat and being willing to share it might make a chimp (at least temporarily) dominant.

One of the most generally accepted fictions in science and philosophy is that human benevolence has some existence of its own separate from our genetic inheritance. Goodness, generosity, and altruism might actually be our most important genetic traits. Like a tiger's teeth or a bird's wings, Homo sapiens' generosity and nurturing behaviors are part of our biology. Our brain formulates good just as much as a flower formulates nectar.

"If right and wrong are nothing more than the instinctive firing of neurons, why bother being good?" The most obvious answer to that question is: we don't have the choice. Depending on which culture you look at, behaving in a 'not-good' manner is defined as deviant, sick, evil, crazy, or possession by a supernatural force. For some reason, our neo-cortex evolved with a strong sense of benevolence. To behave otherwise is pathological.

It is easy to find examples of human goodness. A large part of our vocabulary is devoted to expressing the subtle differences of good behavior. Words such as benevolence, heroism, patriotism, and cooperation are emotionally loaded words that define what we value most. Protecting the weak, feeding the poor, worshipping the hero who devotes himself to truth and justice, are everyday values that people throughout time have agreed on. But more than that - our species' benevolence is so automatic and unreasoning that we display it towards other species as well as our own. When firefighters rush into a burning building to save a dog we don't laugh at their self-sacrificing behavior. We are touched by their courage. We like to think that we would do the same.

Homo sapiens' extended childhood is facilitated by our goodness, but in order for this genetic trait to be passed on, there must be an evolutionary mechanism at work. If beneficent adults don't have offspring, then the beneficent gene would die with them. That a generous man has more access to healthy young women is undeniable. A benevolent man who is willing to protect and nurture children not related to him has more access to fertile women.

Domestication from benevolent behavior

Benevolent behavior has some other beneficial effects. Feeding animals is an easy way to domesticate them. Before barnyard chickens, our ancestors had to search for bird nests. Grazing animals scattered across the plains required hunting, but cattle fenced and fed provided a predictable food source. While a tiger has to lay in wait for prey to come in range, people keep their prey in range. Farming would not be possible if our species wasn't genetically openhanded.

How do we know that feeding other species isn't just an example of our cleverness? Because we feed animals we have no intention of eating or putting to some other use. Wild birds, house cats and tropical fish are of no use to our species yet there are multi-million dollar industries thriving on our willingness to feed them. Generosity is instinctive in humans.

Domestic dogs provide another insight to our innate benevolence. A learning function called imprinting became a nightly news item when an endangered species of bird, the sand-hill crane, imprinted on its human caregiver. Raised by humans, the bird was unable to form a mating pair with another crane. Other species also use imprinting to form bonds, and dogs are one of them. If a puppy of about six weeks is not handled by people, it will not become the loyal, loving companion, but rather a 'junkyard' dog. A bear or a lion wouldn't handle a six week old puppy unless it was dinner time. Humans have a protective instinct towards helplessness that resulted in a bond with another species. We have the same instinct to protect chicks, kits, calves and cubs, but dogs imprinting trait allowed us to make them part of our extended family. What species other than us, adopts?

Consider hidden estrus

An ape with a piece of meat has a temporary chance with the ladies, but the competition is still pretty steep. It would be a lot easier if he could be the closest one around when as estrus approached, but adult male chimps just can't be trusted around baby chimps. A female chimp becomes fertile as she separates from her youngest offspring. If a male could be trusted around young apes, he would be first in line when the female entered estrus. Even better, if he could find an alternate protein source for the infant, the female would be able to wean it earlier. A female chimp only reproduces about every four or five years. More typical for humans is a baby every two or three years. Male chimps kill baby chimps. Men protect unrelated infants.

Women, unlike female chimps, don't advertise estrus. Hidden estrus of human females still baffles scientists, but science doesn't consider the reproductive edge hidden estrus affords benevolent males. What might happen if a ape's estrus didn't attract so much attention from the self-indulgent bully boys fighting for status? What if less obvious estrus gave females more time to spend with generous and benevolent males? Benevolent males would have more access to females. The non-benevolent males would be off on the other side of the valley probably fighting over the biggest rock oblivious to the fertile females.

Providing for the common good

When Boy Scouts are encouraged to do a good deed every day, are they being debased or are they being taught a dominance display? The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States proclaims that its goals are to 'provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty and pursuit of happiness;.' The notion that there is something such as a common good would never occur to a lion. "We seem to have a lot of zebra left over from that last kill. Shall we drop over to visit with that pride down the block who seems to be struggling with all those new cubs?" Or would a zebra say, "I had to stop on my way home to help a wildebeest who was having a little trouble with a hyena pack. I got a few scratches, but it was worth it. Maybe next time it'll be one of our kids that needs help."

For lions, the strongest and most aggressive male is the most dominant. For humans, providing for the good of others is a dominance display. We kneel down in reverence of benevolence. We are disgusted by greed. When a male enters another lion's territory, there is a fight. When a man enters another man's house, he is treated with hospitality. But female dominance doesn't need to be left out of the conversation. In spite of men's widespread erroneous belief that dominance is based on strength, women look for a mate who knows how to get along with other men. There is no point in tying one's future to someone who is likely to get injured on his way to the top of the ladder. Baseball players are more attractive to women than prize fighters. Navigating the give-and-take of social interaction is preferred to physical perfection. An interesting contrast is Arnold Schwartzeniger and Mike Tyson. One is a high status male and one is a reviled beast. I don't need to tell you which is which. Neither should I have to add that women with normal-to-high hopes for her offspring prefer just about anyone over men who are brutish.

Benevolence is strong evolutionary force

No one is surprised when women show beneficence, but they should be. The dominant female of African wild dog packs kills all pups born to other females. When a human tricks or trains a lactating goat or pig into nursing an unrelated baby, it is always noteworthy. Our species is the only one in which a female gladly nurses an unrelated baby. Here in the Pacific Northwest, there is an organization of lactating mothers who donate breast milk to feed babies they will never see. In terms of survival of the fittest, competition might not be the only law of the jungle. Benevolence is strong evolutionary force for our species.

Meat sharing among Jane Goodall's chimp was a significant observation because sharing food is definitively a human trait. It endears apes to us because we value benevolence so highly. Benevolence is how Homo sapiens evolved into a big-brained, highly successful species. For us, sharing food is a daily ritual without competition or threats. It could be the key to many other of our species unique displays of benevolence.

Nancy Sherer

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