This View of Life: The Evolution of Fairness

Brosnan and de Waal’s finding of fairness in the capuchin monkey has settled the long-standing question of whether animals have a sense of fairness and further blurred the line between humans and other animals in a new territory: the sphere of morality.


The questions now are how fairness works and why it evolved. Part of the answers lies in monkeys like the capuchin. But monkeys are complex animals—not only are they highly intelligent; they are also highly social. Which of the two—mental capacity or close-knit social life—hosts the evolutionary wellspring of fairness?

via This View of Life: The Evolution of Fairness.

When I tell people that I think morality arises from our instincts, they often assume that I mean that morality is really just people acting for their own benefit, that people don’t really act altruistically, that they’re just cynically acting in their long term interests.  No doubt there are some people like that, but that’s not what most of us do.

All of us have strong instincts for fairness, instincts that often cause us to work against our own interests, and the linked article discusses the evolutionary basis for it.  Or at least it begins to since it’s an excerpt from a book by Lixing Sun, ‘The Fairness Instinct‘.

This seems to dovetail nicely with the work of Jonathan Haidt, which I’m a fan of and that I’ve already discussed before, but whose book, ‘The Righteous Mind’, I’ll again recommend for anyone interested in the origins of morality from a social psychology perspective.

6 thoughts on “This View of Life: The Evolution of Fairness

  1. As the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins said altruism was and still is an evolutionary benefit to all humans. We see this in other communal creatures as well. The idea behind it is quite obvious, by helping others (typically part of your ‘tribe’) you in tern help yourself because the collective good increased your chance of long term survival. This is where our morality comes from. Its not from a book or a belief handed down by the supernatural but rather from our very genes which try to propagate themselves. The golden rule should be called the genetic rule as it is common among all of us, although not practiced by everyone it is to their long-term benefit to do so.


  2. Reblogged this on The Leather Library and commented:
    For those of you who have not seen this it is rather interesting. You can see that fairness in not an exclusively human trait but rather one that is found in nature. Why? because it is an evolutionary benefit to be altruistic and to be fair since helping the collective in term helps yourself. By being empathetic and fair to others you can increase the chance that they will reciprocate those action ergo increasing your chance at survival and genetic propagation.


  3. I was impressed by Darwin’s point in Descent of Man that our morality is rooted most of all in our being social creatures, as were so many of the animals that preceded us. Social cooperation is defined by scientists as action that increases the wellbeing of everyone involved. Altruism, in contrast, reduces the helper’s wellbeing (at least superficially) and increases that of the person who receives the help. Altruism, which is fairly infrequent, requires an explanation of what is really behind it, but ordinary social cooperation doesn’t. Cooperation is the basis for a sense of fairness that we reenact every time we work together, collaborate with colleagues, do things jointly with friends or family. Darwin, so aware of the social animals that we evolved from, saw this.


    1. Interesting. One of these days I’m going to have to read Descent of Man. I’ve read a chapter, notably the one that started the individual versus group selection debate, but have never gotten around to reading the whole thing. Darwin did have an amazing amount of insight, given the limitations of knowledge at that time.

      I tend to see altruism as probably our cooperation instinct simply going in overdrive, but from what I understand, establishing anything scientifically in this area is very difficult.


  4. Interesting excerpt – I’ll have to give a slower reread, thanks, and that video clip is great, definitely “must see” material!


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