I believe that contradiction can be a good thing. I spend my life studying evolution, which is founded on the principle that individuals will act in ways that best propagate their genes—in other words, that individuals of every species are inherently selfish. Whatever will get you the most food, win you the most fights, help you mate with the best partner…this is what you should do, regardless of whom you have to step on to get there. Don’t help someone else unless you can be sure they will some day return the favor. These are the mantras that guide the animals I study every day, the plants I pass on my way to school, even the bacteria living in my stomach, whether they are aware of it or not. My life is consumed with the idea that every living thing acts in the best interest of its genes, and to heck with everyone else. And I know that by all laws of science, humans are no exception to this.
Except we ARE. Although it can be easy to lose sight of this in the face of war, genocide, sexual predators, and countless other evils, society is full of good Samaritans. I don’t have to listen to the news to hear about people performing selfless acts—they are all around me, every day. At a rainy baseball game this summer, the woman sitting next to me, whom I had never met, bought herself a poncho, and bought one for me, too. Yesterday a student saw me struggling with my groceries and helped me load them into my car, then took the cart back inside for me. Altruism doesn’t have to change a thousand lives to matter: it can be as simple as the fellow driver who let me cross traffic to make a left turn on my way to work this morning. These people had nothing to gain by helping me. They used their own time and energy, which they could have spent on themselves, to aid me. This generosity spits in the face of evolution.
It would be so easy for people to blame their selfish behavior on their genes. That would be a tough argument to counter with science, and a nightmare for our legal system. But despite this, people still go out of their way to make other people’s lives easier, happier, fuller. This happens on a global scale, sure, but I study individuals, not populations, so what I marvel at are the tiny things people do to help others, against the better judgment of their genes. This contradiction used to trouble me—I thought it could not coexist with the work I did—but over the years I have grown to realize that it’s just another thing that makes humans so unique. Now, I try to surround myself with as much altruism as possible, whether it stems those around me or from my own actions. A little irony can go a long way—this I believe.
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