It was the kind of situation in which a dog might have understandably wanted to eat another dog. The month was January, the year was 1999, and the crown princes and princesses of the largest companies in the world had gathered for a little skiing, a little socializing, a little polite conversation, and a little dabbling in the latest, most provocative ideas — something they do every year at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland.
But this year, it was snowing like mad — too much for skiing, too depressing for socializing, and almost too cold for politeness. Hell in this Swiss mountain town was beginning to take on a whiter shade of pale. The meeting rooms started getting colder. Then the portions at dinner started getting smaller. All of a sudden, the lights went out all over town — and you could almost feel the question being asked by the rich, the privileged, the powerful: What happens now? Any hypercompetitive, only-the-strong-survive, entrepreneurially minded capitalist could be excused for hoarding food, defending prime territory, and knocking off competitors. Or would he?
In this setting of surplus-turned-to-scarcity, Helena Cronin, 57, philosopher, social scientist, and codirector of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics, delivered her scheduled lecture on the survival of the fittest: "Look carefully at nature, and you will find that it doesn't always seem short, brutish, and savage," she told the cold, hungry moguls. "Animals are strikingly unselfish, giving warnings of predators, sharing food, grooming one another, adopting orphans, fighting without killing — or injuring — their adversaries. In some ways, they behave more like moral paragons of Aesop than the hard-bitten, self-seeking individualists that natural selection seems to favor."
The environment was decidedly cold, but Cronin warmed to her theme. "It turns out," she told the assembled kill-or-be-killed crowd, "that you can actually prosper more by entering into relationships of reciprocation, so that you're both getting more than either of you would have gotten separately."
The lecture was not what anyone expected. But in those dark moments of the soul, Cronin offered a way of coping with shared adversity, a new school of competitive thinking based on the notion of an unselfish gene. Her ideas are a more challenging line of thought and a more accurate reflection of how the world works than the view popularized by Intel's Andy Grove that "only the paranoid survive."
Cronin's version of Darwinism shows that altruism and generosity create more rewards than their opposites do. She introduced the CEOs to the flip side of paranoia: "pronoia" — the idea that everyone is not out to get you, but that they are out to love you, or at least to appreciate you, if you reciprocate. According to the new Darwinism, only the pronoid survive — in fact, only the pronoid endure and flourish.
The really bizarre thing is that this belief comes from a bona fide Darwinist — and wasn't Darwin the top dog in the high court of Canine v. Canine? Wasn't he the pseudoeconomist of choice in the greed-is-good 1980s, offering justification for the decade of financial reengineering? Wasn't Darwin the pseudosociologist of choice in the Reagan years, providing a fig leaf of intellectual cover for social policies that asserted that poverty was a sign of an individual's unwillingness to evolve to some higher economic ground?
But that was then, and this is now. As we enter a new millennium, a new generation of Darwinists, with Helena Cronin at the lead, is turning those 1980s beliefs upside down. Today, Cronin is saying, "Yes, but ..." What if being the fittest means having the most generosity of spirit? What if enhancing your chance of survival comes from improving your capacity to be altruistic?
Cronin has spent the past 20 years carefully rereading the work of Charles Darwin, showing that most of what we believe about his theories is wrong. "Darwin himself said that the war of nature 'is not incessant' and that 'the happy survive and multiply,'" Cronin says. Read Darwin's own fieldwork: He recorded dozens of examples of animals engaged in self-sacrifice. Why, Cronin asks, did Darwin note countless instances of an animal giving up its time, its food, its mate — even its life — to help others? Because, Cronin answers, that kind of behavior is smart evolution: It results in greater rewards.
Dusting off the lies from Darwin's principles can be the best thing believers in the power of ideas can do. What we presume to be the theory of survival of the fittest is probably the oldest story we tell ourselves about success. We grow up believing that it's a jungle out there. We learn that to survive, we must become "natural-born killers." So Cronin's radical rethinking of Darwinism goes against the grain and yet proves to be essential, especially now. At a moment when most accepted wisdom is up for grabs — when Karl Marx is dead, Sigmund Freud is finished, and a "new physics" is looking very old — only Darwin promises insight into our work and our future. But we need to know the real Darwin. And the real Darwin says that the paranoid may survive, but only the pronoid succeed.
The Gift Economy
"Doing what's immediately good for oneself has been understood by Darwinists for a long time," Cronin says. "But what hasn't been understood until recently is that you can actually do better for yourself by being cooperative and altruistic than you can by selfishly refusing to cooperate with others. It's not that you do as well. You actually do better — and all of you do better than if you had gone off on your own and refused to help others."
At the conference in Davos, Cronin illustrated her point about the power of altruism with an example of the new Darwinism: "In Britain, blood is given free of charge. Donors are proud to be known as good, altruistic people. There is never a shortage, and the quality of blood is very high because the healthiest people give blood. In America, it's the opposite. People are frequently paid to give blood, and so you've got two big problems: The quality of blood is bad, because drug addicts and the poor have an incentive to donate, and there tend to be many shortages of blood.
"Two years ago, there was talk in Britain about selling blood to make money for the new blood-donor service. Immediately, there was an uproar. People didn't want to give blood, even though that money was to go back into the blood-donor service. People felt it was no longer a gift relationship.
"The number of people giving blood dropped dramatically in the weeks following that decision. The currency changed. Therefore, the emotions changed. When someone gives you money, you don't feel the same emotions that you feel when someone demonstrates a kindness. We are too quick to interpret everything as marginal that does not fit our economic model," says Cronin. But the elements of the story of the British blood bank and the essential factors of altruism are starting to show up everywhere in the new economy.
The paranoid are having a hard time with this new rule: The more you give away, the more you have. Yet America Online is about to give away computers. The Linux operating system is readily available and free. Meanwhile, eFax.com offers free faxing services. Also, a recent meeting between two potential Internet partners, Inktomi Corp. and venture capitalist CMGI, began by each throwing down the gauntlet — of openness: In seeking grounds for cooperation, the two sides would compete only to see who would do a better job of telling all. "The deal is that we agree to tell each other everything; otherwise, there is no meeting," is how one participant described the understanding that prefaced the session. "We acknowledge that we can't create something new by ourselves. In the past, people would be secretive. You'd have to get drunk to open up and tell the truth."
Generosity, not greed, is a strategic good. Don Norman, author of "The Design of Everyday Things," left Hewlett-Packard in 1998 to work solo. He claims that his most significant asset is the list of 10,000 names in his PalmPilot. Similar to the way that Britons give blood for the common good, Norman puts people in touch with other people for everyone's mutual benefit. The more Norman gives of his time and his contacts, the more business flows back to him. The formula is not tit for tat. Rather, it's another rule that the paranoid can hardly fathom: "What goes around comes around." By putting people in contact with one another, Norman helps new businesses begin, the pie gets bigger for everyone, and sooner or later Norman benefits. It's a new law — not of diminishing returns or of increasing returns, but of exponential returns.
This is the gift economy, where money is meaningless and gifts are the new currency. The more a business or an individual worker gives away, the more that everyone has. This is a vision of a new economic model, a new evolutionary order that poet Lewis Hyde has captured in his 1983 underground classic, "The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property," in which he points out that these two very different marketplaces — gift and greed — exist side by side, and increasingly they converge.
What is the gift economy? It's based on tribal notions that a gift is meant as currency, not property. A gift must be circulated; it must be passed around. The old phrase of shame — "Indian giver" — paradoxically exemplifies the story behind the gift economy. When Indians gave white settlers a gift, they expected one in return. Instead of keeping gifts in circulation, the settlers would put their peace pipes, which they had received from the Indians as gifts, on their mantles. The Indians believed that gifts were meant to be kept in circulation, so when they didn't get something in return, they asked for their gifts back. This shocked the settlers and their traditional notions of property. The whites faulted the Indians for their bad manners, but to the Indians, it was just good economics.
If today's businesses were more immersed in the gift economy and less steeped in the transaction culture, would we see more goods and services like Linux? Cronin says that the minute you introduce money, you turn off the altruism gene. It doesn't disappear from people's character, it disappears from the transaction. And often — as with the British blood bank — it impoverishes the transaction.
Altruism fundamentally changes economic and competitive equations: Observers say that the biggest threat to Microsoft is not the U.S. Department of Justice but the growing freeware movement. Under the new rules of freeware, Linux rewards its network of elite programmers not with pay but with prestige; the richest developer is not the greediest but the one with the best reputation. In 1976, Bill Gates accused the freeware movement of shoddiness. He wanted to know, "Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?" But today, although its overall market share is small, Linux presents an interesting competitive scenario: Say, for instance, that China adopts Linux as its countrywide operating system. "Then," says one observer, "whoever owns China, will own the software business. Even software pirates prefer not to steal but to take what's free."
Such changes are fresh and are still taking shape. And they challenge the conventional wisdom of competition. They also make most high-testosterone businessmen very uncomfortable. Nicholas Humphrey is a Darwinist at the London School of Economics. Wherever he looks in the culture of business, Humphrey sees the discomfort and disorientation that generosity can cause. "An IBM spokesman came to my child's nursery school several years ago," Humphrey says. "He said, 'We are not giving money to this school out of altruism. Every penny has an intent of enlightened self-interest.' Somewhere this man was told, 'Don't admit that anything you do is motivated by anything other than self-interest.' He felt that he had to apologize on behalf of IBM for giving the school a gift."
Management guru Peter Drucker offered the bottom line on a company's purpose in the old economy: to make a profit. Today, even profits have become a less-compelling way to keep score than intangible values, such as share of mind, strength of relationships, or loyalty of employees. These days, having a compelling story can be just as important as having a compelling product. The bottom line is not a single number, but more an emotion, a mind-set, a credible promise. The transaction economy is changing into a gift economy. And in the process, we're learning to reinterpret Darwin's fundamental lessons.
Darwin in Love
Flash back to 1831: Charles Darwin, 22, is the troublesome son of a father who predicts that his boy will amount to nothing more than "a rat catcher." He leaves his father's bruising opinions and goes looking for something to do with his life.
He travels to the Galápagos Islands — and he can hardly believe what he sees. It looks like paradise. The finches have no fear of humans. They land on Darwin as if he were a tree. They catch themselves in his hat. The man who will become one of the greatest scientists of the millennium is so bewitched by his surroundings that he succumbs to a form of poetry: He claims to know what the rocks and animals are thinking. He pulls the tail of one burrowing creature. "At this, it was greatly astonished and shuffled up to see what was the matter," Darwin wrote, "and then stared me in the face, as much to say, 'What made you pull my tail?' " Enchanted by the scenes, he called the islets "a center of creation."
Flash ahead to the last days of the 20th century and the early days of the digital economy. The Internet is a new locus of creation: Teeming life. Spiraling evolution. Exotic species. Enchanted islands. It's the perfect place for the unselfish gene to undergo a massive thrust in evolution: a step change, an evolutionary twist in which nature is redirected and behavior changes.
For years, scientists have recorded step changes in evolution. Before the Industrial Revolution, for example, the predominant color of moths was a light peppered form recorded in 1848, in Manchester, England, a center for the new manufacturing economy. As factories grew, a population of darker moths soon increased in frequency. By 1950, a mere 100 years later, dark moths made up more than 90% of the moth population. In the world of science, that's a sudden and dramatic evolutionary change. The Darwinian change agent: birds hunting by sight. Darker moths were better disguised on tree trunks covered by the soot of the new factories, and thus, they were not so easily eaten by birds.
Then, something truly bizarre happened: House cats got darker, too. Not because birds preyed on them, but because the darker color protected them from the increased radiation that resulted from the pollution. The Darwinian lesson has less to do with survival of the fittest and more to do with how change happens in nature: Once evolution enters a step change, most everything gets caught up in its influence. Eventually, the future shows up everywhere.
To Cronin and her colleagues, a similar evolutionary shift is now taking place with the altruism gene. Altruism, which literally means "concern for the other," has been recessive for most of history. The new economy makes it recessive no longer.
Altruism has been hardwired into us; it's right there in the genes. When economies become larger, richer, and more interdependent, conditions that favor the unselfish genes increase — similar to the conditions that increased the numbers of dark moths and dark cats in smoggy England.
"We have a propensity for altruism, for wanting to give, for hating to renege, for forgiving, for feeling indignant," says Cronin. "These are part of our machinery for altruism. If we set up an environment to evoke what is most altruistic from us, then it isn't at all difficult to evoke altruism and increase it, because altruism grows on altruism, and reneging grows on reneging. We don't have to change human nature to change society. The environment evokes from a given human nature more or less cooperative behavior."
We are born altruists in two areas. The first is by kin selection. " We are finely tuned to offer altruism to others who share the same genes," Cronin says. "A mother is self-sacrificial to her children." The other source is reciprocal altruism — tit for tat at its most crude level. "If you're playing over a long period, it's worthwhile to keep cooperation going," says Cronin.
Darwin himself hated conflict. When Alfred Russel Wallace, a young naturalist, wrote Darwin a year before Origin of Species was to be published and outlined word for word what was apparently Darwin's own idea, Darwin wrote to a colleague asking whether he should publish his own work: "I would rather burn my whole book than he or any other man should think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit." His colleague insisted that he publish his book. But a year before he did, Darwin published a joint paper with Wallace.
Altruism breeds altruism, and reciprocal acts breed reciprocal acts. "If we feel that other people are only out for themselves, one is wary of being altruistic. If we feel other people are not giving, we say, 'I'm not going to be a sucker,' " says Cronin. "The more people understand that we are evolved altruists, and the more people feel that no one is taking advantage of another, the more we will become altruistic, and the more we won't take advantage of one another."
Living by the Laws of the Unselfish Gene
Darwin had a great gift: curiosity. He saw nothing as ordinary. Helena Cronin has the same gift. The big mystery about Darwin is how this wealthy country boy, far from brilliant as a youth, became a genius. Helena Cronin has a similar mystery about her.
When she began studying Darwin, the field was not fashionable. In fact, Cronin has a background much like Darwin's: She was left out of the mainstream for years, thinking she would study English literature. She studied philosophy, but with no great passion. "I have three degrees in philosophy, but I never really enjoyed it," she says. "I never quite decided what I wanted to do when I grew up, but in the meantime, I was studying philosophy." Throughout her career, she was driven by others' direction. "Basically, I got a PhD because my adviser thought I should. This is a typical woman's story."
It's one of Cronin's less-than-politically-correct Darwinian theories: In a Darwinian world, women don't have the competitive direction of men. "The problem with Darwinism is that it is a male-advantaged science," she says. "Darwinists explain males as peacocks, strutting and displaying their advantages. The men were killing elk or giraffe while the women were catching rabbits. What is it to be the rabbit catcher? The colorless creatures. What is it to own that? There's a theory of the peacock, but where is the theory of the peahen?"
In the spring of 1963, Cronin was reading the philosophies of Karl Popper in a library much like the great reading room of the British Museum. "I still remember how the light was streaming in on the page," Cronin says. What struck her was the explanatory power of science. From there, it was a small step to getting hooked on Darwin. She was drawn to Darwin at a time when philosophers were saying that Darwin was bad science, and survival of the fittest was a tautology. On the other hand, Cronin says, "It was the foundation of all biology. It needed reexploring. I thought I would take a new look at evolutionary theory." She wrote a book, "The Ant and the Peacock," chosen by the New York Times as one of its top books of 1992. The subject: the innate altruism of animals.
Is it possible to give in to the altruism gene in your career? Darwin's own career is practically a study in submission to the altruism gene. He never seemed to have any clear sense of ambition or determination. His father, a wealthy, successful doctor, despaired for his son's future. The younger Darwin, meanwhile, never ardently pursued degrees or honors.
For her part, Cronin used her gender to her advantage — that, "and doing things in the decent, right way," she says. "If I were a man, I would not have the luxury of being able to behave in noncompetitive ways. Most men couldn't afford to do what I'm doing, because it wouldn't affirm their careers, and it wouldn't show up well in a competitive arena. I have the luxury of not needing to do that, partly because I'm not driven the way they are. I've never had a career. Things just happen to me." She has evolved, much as Darwin's own discoveries had evolved. "I think of my career as a series of contingencies. I see it as a fortuitous stumbling onto things that were worthwhile, without seeking them out."
In 1995, Cronin enjoyed another fortuitous stumble, founding "Darwin@LSE," an interdisciplinary program that has become the hottest salon in England. It attracts writers like A.S. Byatt and Ian McEwan, scientists like Paul Davis, and others who gather to debate the truth as Darwinists interpret it. Structurally, Darwin@LSE is a study in the gift economy of altruism. "We were desperately underfunded," Cronin says. "I wrote to the world's best scholars and asked them to appear for free, not even offering to pay for expenses. Everyone I approached found the money, rearranged their schedules, and appeared. People who normally were paid thousands of dollars a lecture would say, 'I have gone out of my way because it's a worthwhile cause, done with commitment, integrity, and good feeling.'"
Cronin's approach shows the limits of competitive strategy for building careers and institutions, along with the evolving alternative: cooperative strategy. "If I had set out to start Darwin@LSE, I don't know if it would have been such a success," she says. "I set out to start a seminar with the best people and no money at all. It turned out that the best people wanted to take part. How do you plan something like that? Typically, you go out, get an administrator, and raise money. But if I'd gone that route, I wonder if people would have responded in the same way. Everything was done by me, from securing hotel rooms to buying candles for dinner. Because of that, I gathered lots of voluntary help, which I've still got. If I had money to pay for everything, who would have volunteered?" It's the story of the blood bank, applied to Cronin's own undertaking.
In fact, Cronin applies the same thinking to her own career choices: what she thinks about and how she spends her time. "It would have been better for my career if I had written another book," she says candidly. "But it's been better for Darwin's theory for me to have founded Darwin@LSE."
The Sobriety of the Gene
Management depends on changing people's behavior. In a Darwinian worldview, however, people cannot change. "It is important to know what is fundamental to us as evolved animals, so that we don't waste our efforts trying to change what we cannot change," says Cronin. "People can't be managed, but systems can be altered to take advantage of the behavior that begins in our brains. When you know what you can control versus what you cannot control, that allows you degrees of freedom. You can't change human behavior, but you can change the conditions in which you work and the policies that you create to elicit a certain kind of human response."
It's a sobering thought, but whether you see it as imprisoning or as liberating depends on your worldview. "My younger students get very depressed studying Darwin," says Nigel Nicholson, a Darwinist at the London Business School. "They think he robs them of their free will by arguing that genes define behavior. But my older students love Darwin. They are at the point in life where they see that control counts for little, that there are larger forces determining who we are and how we act."
How different would the world be if neo-Darwinism held sway? Here are some of Cronin's insights about the intersection of human behavior, business practices, and neo-Darwinism:
Forget romantic love. Darwinists believe that everything starts with the force of the genes. Romantic love is just the desire of genes to be passed down from one generation to the next. Females are attracted to males who are able to secure family resources; males, meanwhile, look for signs of female reproductive health — which in humans is best determined by a formula: waist size that is one-third of hip size. The arts of all kinds — poetry, music, theater — are like the peacock's tail: displays of virtuosity or of desirability that lead to sex.
Psychology isn't sustaining. "Freudian theory makes no sense," Cronin insists. "Why on Earth should you carry into your adulthood childhood incidents that influence your behavior? There are no adaptive reasons for this." On the other hand, there are very sound Darwinian explanations that connect lessons learned in early childhood to personal decisions made in adulthood. For example, a woman who was brought up by a mother who had no male support might decide to have children early in life, because she doesn't see herself as having a long or comfortable reproductive future. But in Darwinism, such behavior is adaptive, not neurotic.
Management goes bankrupt. You can't change behavior; it's hardwired. You can only change structures or environments, which will make recessive behavior more prominent.
Strategy is a badly flawed approach to problems. "The problem with strategy," says Nicholas Humphrey of the London School of Economics, "is that you have to think first. In a fast-moving game, you want to make the behavior seamless with the being, so that pause and thought are not necessary."
The science of leadership looks false. Visions don't come from on high. Change comes from the ground up, from genes and subtle shifts in nature. But you can't alter these — you can only respond, and respond quickly.
And if new-economy businesspeople seek to adapt their behavior and practices to the new Darwinism, what kinds of changes would then be called for?
Understand how cooperation pays. The more cooperation there is, the more it pays. Altruism, generosity, and loyalty are at the heart of the famous prisoners' dilemma — which is, itself, a test of which version of Darwinism you choose to practice. It works like this: Put two prisoners under an investigator's bright light. If each rats on the other, both remain jailed. If neither rats, both stand a chance of going free. "The more a tit-for-tat strategy is successful, the more likely people will be able to reap the rewards of mutual cooperation," says Cronin. "Out of selfishness comes altruism."
Put renewed emphasis on policy. "The more we understand how altruism evolves, the more we will be able to feed it into our policies," Cronin says. "And the more we will be able to understand things that are either odd or downright paradoxical to the standard economic models that make the world run very well. Simple things like neighborliness or being trusting without paying guards to create a sense of safety. The belief that financial rewards are what attracts people is not only false, it destroys a lot of goodwill."
Show respect for marginal examples. "There have been some experiments that don't fit the standard economists' models, and they are pushed aside," Cronin says. "The more we seek to understand them, the more they can be brought into the center, and the more we can run societies based on them. And that will serve to induce more altruism in people.
"For example, a professor of economics in Zurich asked people whether they would be prepared to have a nuclear-waste dump near their homes, given that it was socially necessary. When it was thought to be a public good and also safe, 50% said they would agree to have this dump nearby. The professor then changed the conditions: People would be paid money to have the dump near their homes. The percentage of people who agreed then dropped to 25%. People agreed in the first scenario because they felt the dump was for the public good. As soon as it became a matter of money changing hands, having the dump nearby became a different sort of act. People then believed, 'Well, maybe I'm not getting enough for it.' With money, a whole new area of transaction comes into play."
Don't romanticize competition. This may be Cronin's most compelling argument — and the hardest for traditional business players to accept: Competition is not mortal or moral combat. In the animal kingdom, it's simply an opportunity to show off. To make the point, Cronin undertakes a little anthropological fieldwork.
In a prettified British pub — one of those new pink-tablecloth joints in Tony Blair's kinder, hipper Britain — Cronin is talking about the irrational, primal choices economic creatures consistently make. Her voice is constantly drowned out. Upstairs, a party of shouting British businessmen is celebrating some fresh triumph in the market-place. They are mighty frisky, thumping tables, stamping on the floor, yelling, laughing, toasting.
This, says Cronin, is how the successful typically compete: "They're lekking. 'Lek' from the Swedish, meaning to sport or to mate," she explains. "It means, to play. In the animal kingdom, once a year males get together and lek. They strut around. During mating season, for example, the grouse compete for certain areas. They have to go to special clearings. The females come and look at them and choose a mate. The definition of 'sad' is lekking that has no female viewers."
Understanding that most competition is a display feeds into the argument for the ultimate triumph of altruism. Most people believe that animals do only what they must to survive: eat, sleep, ward off predators, and reproduce. But studying the peacock's tail, as Cronin has done, reveals how animals favor looking good themselves. Cronin invites a deeper consideration of the simple version of competition as a battle for survival: When the race goes to the fastest, then how do we explain peacocks' tails — extravagant, over the top, grossly inefficient adaptations?
"The peacock's tail is a wild extravaganza," says Cronin. "It's a burden, unnecessarily bright and gaudy. The peacock could well be better off without it, in a way that you couldn't say the cheetah would be better off without its sprint or the wren without its camouflage. How do we explain this wild extravaganza that takes a lot of resources, doesn't produce anything, is heavy to tote around, and marks the bird as a target for predators?"
Why has nature designed something so useless? As useless as being nice to the other guy? As useless as sharing information? As useless as committing your life to pursuing an idea whose outcome you can't possibly know? Reputation, says Cronin, is a key element in competition. "Once you understand that sexual selection is displaying qualities like kindness or goodness, or is demonstrating that you can afford to give things away, then you understand the close connection between flamboyance and altruism. Altruism can be one of those evolved peacock feathers in our minds."
Physicists don't believe that in 100 years there will still be Einsteinian physicists. But in 100 years, biologists will still be Darwinians. "Once you understand that we are evolved animals, then everything has to be Darwinian," says Cronin. "That economics could treat us as pure, rational 'choice entities' is sadly mistaken. We're not; we're human beings." It's one of those rare instances in science where the founder of an idea continues to affect everything we desire: what we wish and what we don't wish. Darwin's radical finding is that ours is a world of "man from monkeys." For neo-Darwinists, there's an even more radical conclusion: It's also humans who make angels — the symbol of altruism.
Harriet Rubin (email@example.com) is a Fast Company contributing editor. Her new book, "Soloing: Realizing Your Life's Ambition," will be published this month by HarperCollins. Her Web site (www.ivillage.com/thesoloist) also debuts this month. You can contact Helena Cronin by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sidebar: How Altruistic Are You?
The characteristics of altruism are of greatest value in a fast-changing environment, where people are frequently called on to trust strangers, invest in new companies, or make deals with people they have just met. To get a sense of your own evolutionary trajectory, ask yourself the following questions:
How much do you value high risk?
Taking risks is a primary characteristic of altruists. For example, altruists are apt to jump into a lake to save somebody they don't know. Other ways that risk and altruism intersect include camaraderie in battle — that is, risking your life for someone who is not related to you or for an idea in which you believe.
Are you concerned with your own view of your reputation?
How do you behave when there is no one around to judge? For example, do you leave a tip in a town where you'll never be seen again? An altruist would behave appropriately, so she could think of herself as a person who does worthy and upright things.
How good are you at detecting when people are being kind for selfish reasons and when they are being altruistic?
Noticing altruism in others is a trigger for reciprocity, and it starts at the youngest ages: A very young baby can respond to a smile. The skill in adulthood is discerning between a real smile and a fake one.
Do you feel empathetic or sympathetic to others' situations?
There is a physical test for this: How much do you attempt to read other people's minds to learn their concerns? Eye gaze is the defining factor, says Helena Cronin. "You look toward someone else, and I follow your eyes and look at someone else. A baby develops eye gaze when he sees an adult stare away, and he follows that gaze. That baby can put himself into someone else's life. It's part of our psycho-logical machinery that natural selection has given us to be able to be good reciprocators."
If you notice these altruistic tendencies in yourself, you may worry that this type of behavior is dangerously unstrategic. Instead of worrying about being too altruistic, pretend you are a gene, Cronin suggests. Otherwise, economic behavior makes no sense. "Genes are the strategists," she says. "It's no good for nature to build a perfect bird if that bird won't sit on its nest and hatch its young. Behavior is strategies adapted by genes as they pass down the generations — including genes for altruism."
Altruism, says Cronin, is dangerous to the individual — and good for the species. We put ourselves in jeopardy to be altruistic, the same way many animals will act as sentries for their tribes. To think of ourselves as strategic, in Darwinian terms, is a mistake. Says Cronin: "Essentially, humans have no strategy. It's an illusion to think of ourselves as rational. We have animal brains in our bodies."
Sidebar: The Undiscovered Darwin
Business has made a mess out of Darwin's theories. For the most part, business has built its understanding of competition and strategy on a foundation of Darwinian misreadings. Here's the truth about some commonly misunderstood Darwinian principles:
The struggle for existence.
One of the ways that Darwin used that expression was to refer to the death of a plant that didn't get enough water. The struggle for existence doesn't mean the lion biting into the lamb. Lots of Victorian gentlemen perverted Darwinist theories to justify their own predatory instincts.
The selfish gene.
Do you believe that natural selection is just about selfishness? Try explaining it then: Think of yourself as a gene sitting in a body. You give an alarm call. By so doing, you call attention to yourself, which may alert the predator to your presence. At the same time, you will be saving the kin group — and saving copies of yourself — in future generations. Genes do self-sacrificial things regularly. Those that do are often the best replicators — that is, they are the ones that make their way down through the generations.
Competition hurries progress.
This false notion suggests that you get better outcomes by eliminating the weaker member of a group. That is supported by another Darwinian misreading: Only the strong survive, and the outcome will be better if you have people of first-rate strength. These assumptions have become the foundation of growth, progress, and capitalism: stronger, better, more. But they are not part of Darwinism. Darwin's insight was that competition can lead to all sorts of new ecological niches. If predators are devouring animals (like you) during the day, you might become nocturnal. If predators are becoming stronger or larger, you could become smaller, more mobile, or less visible.
Nice or nasty?
There is nothing vengeful or vindictive about Darwinian theory. Invoking Darwin to justify cutthroat behaviors is wrong.
A version of this article appeared in the November 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.