​Does Being Nice Make Sense From an Evolutionary Perspective?

When we talk about survival of the fittest, acts of kindness are not the first thing we mention — but there are reasons for them. Purino/Shutterstock

When we think about Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the phrase "survival of the fittest" usually comes to mind — a phrase that was actually coined by 19th century philosopher, sociologist and anthropologist Herbert Spencer, not Darwin.

You might think of a particular species or group forcefully taking full advantage of their surroundings in order to survive — leaving behind anyone who isn’t able to tough it out or adapt. When thinking about evolution and natural selection, we don't think of people in a harsh environment sitting around a campfire holding hands. Making nice all day will pretty much get you nowhere.

Given the competitive nature of Darwin’s theory, it really doesn’t seem that it would make much sense to be nice; but, people show kindness nonetheless. So, how do we explain kindness when we keep Darwin’s theories in mind?

Several theories attempt to reconcile kindness with the theories of evolution and natural selection.

Group selection theory

The group selection theory suggests that we act kindly for the good of the group or species. This suggests that cooperation is needed in order to survive.

In the 1970s, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote a book, "The Selfish Gene." Some of Dawson’s theories offer a possible explanation for the motivations behind the theory of group selection.

Dawkins hypothesizes that we tend to help those with whom we share similar genes. This idea makes sense when you think about showing kindness to relatives in order for your family lineage to continue. If everyone within a family is nice to one another, it’s likely that the family will stick together. But more explanation is needed when we take into account the fact that we also act kindly towards those outside of our family tree.

Reciprocal altruism

friends and moving boxes
Are we nice because we care, or are there selfish reasons for doing so?. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

The theory of reciprocal altruism suggests that kindness towards others will in turn be met with kindness. Here, consider the notion that "I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine," or people continually returning favors for the benefit of both parties involved.

In a way, it’s sort of a selfish motivation in that you only help an individual for your own benefit. But if you think about it in terms of survival, reciprocal altruism creates a symbiotic relationship — a relationship where your long-term survival is dependent on the long-term survival of another. So, you have to keep playing nice if you want to play at all.

Indirect reciprocity

homeless person holding out hands for money
Kind acts toward strangers don't seem to benefit you in any way. Mumemories/Shutterstock

Reciprocal altruism makes sense when you think about long-lasting relationships between individuals. But there are times where we’re nice to strangers that we’ll most likely never see again, or even acquaintances we seldom see. That’s where the theory of indirect reciprocity comes into play. This theory attempts to explain acts that don’t seem to benefit you in any way.

If you commit random acts of kindness, and you think you do so simply because you’re just kind-natured, you might want to rethink how nice you actually are.

Indirect reciprocity is an altruistic theory which states that we act out of kindness for the sake of our reputation within a group. In this case, not only does being nice make you look like a genuinely nice person, but it also increases the chances that others will be nice to you. If you’re on a perpetual mean streak, and you never show kindness toward anyone, you shouldn’t expect anyone to help you with anything.

If you have a good reputation, good things will probably come your way. If you have the reputation of a complete jerk, then you’re on your own. Your kindness or lack thereof is observed by others, which forms the basis for your reputation.

This is another instance where being nice seems to serve to our advantage.

Altruistic punishment

We see now how being nice is beneficial when we’re with others, or at least when we need to show kindness if we expect any favors. But, there are certain situations in which an almost reverse form of kindness is expressed.

Altruistic punishment is a theory that certain people punish unkind behavior by deriding and condemning an unkind individual. You might, for example, chastise someone you think is typically mean.

In the moment of “punishment” you aren’t gaining any immediate benefit. But, your contempt for an individual’s malicious behavior or disposition displays your moral compass and shows that by criticizing them you’re acting for the good of the group. When expressing your disdain of the behavior, you’re doing it because you care about others.

While altruistic punishment entails harsh words that might not be considered very nice, it’s the care for others (as a whole) that makes the condemnation altruistic.

So, are we nice because we care, or are we simply nice because there are selfish benefits to doing so?

Of the theories for kindness, we haven’t yet been able to find one that totally fits. The theories aren’t really able to explain the big picture, and many of them often lead to more questions than answers. Yet, the theories are still fascinating and at least give us a few pieces of the puzzle.

Regardless of which theory you choose to believe, in many ways, it appears as if nice guys don’t always finish last.