Altruism, Religion, and Self-Enhancement in a Framework of Ad Hoc Evolutionary Adaptation



We review evolutionary explanations for three major puzzles of the human mind: altruism, religiosity, and self-enhancement. Human altruism reaches beyond reciprocity or close-kin care readily explained by game theory and genetic kin selection. Group selection is widely seen as too weak to lead to substantial altruism as it struggles to contain selfishness favored by within-group selection. Yet, reciprocity and punishment leverage the effectiveness of altruism within a group, and genuine altruism is testified to be weak, leaving scope for explanation even by a force as weak as group selection. Moralistic religious culture appears tightly linked to altruism, yet the fitness advantage of a defector within a religious society makes it difficult to conceive religion or related genetic predisposition as an evolutionarily stable strategy. Self-enhancement has direct links to altruism and religiosity, leading to warm-glow altruistic contributions and increased receptiveness to comforting narratives of heavenly justice. Suggested intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of self-enhancement do not detail how the trait should be competitive against more direct behavioral adjustments that yield similar personal benefits but avoid the fitness costs of misperception. We explain religion and bias as imperfect ad hoc evolutionary adaptations rather than perfect evolutionarily stable strategies (ESS). The scant time available for fine-tuning the mind since the emergence of higher cognitive capabilities means near-perfect traits were unlikely to emerge. Instead, the extraordinary evolutionary pressure induced by the rapidly evolving environment favored a broad range of genetic novelties despite extra costs.


Fitness Cost Evolutionarily Stable Strategy Altruistic Behavior Strong Reciprocator Evolutionarily Stable Strategy 
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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Swiss Institute of International Economics and Applied Economic ResearchDepartment of Economics, University of St. GallenSt. GallenSwitzerland

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