Biology Magazine

Tricksters, Selfishness & Altruism

By Cris


In evolutionary biology, few issues have caused more debate than altruism or what appears to be altruism. It is generally accepted that selection operates on individual organisms and that these organisms are selfishly interested in their own survival and reproduction. Another way of stating this is that individual organisms are interested solely in passing along their genes and are uninterested in higher level abstractions such as the group or “species.” If this is the case, then how can we explain what appears to be self-sacrificing behaviors?

In a series of foundational papers and books, George C. Williams, John Maynard Smith, William D. Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and Richard Dawkins explained how altruism and cooperation could have evolved through the combined operations of inclusive fitness and kin selection. The upshot of all this is that what looks like altruistic behavior is actually self interested behavior, when viewed from the perspective of an individual organism and its genes. There is, in other words, no such thing as “pure” altruism.

A small number of scholars have never been able to stomach the notion that what appears to be altruism is rooted in selfishness. Many, I suspect, are metaphysically troubled by the idea and simply cannot accept that “pure goodness” does not exist. In an effort to carve out conceptual space for unadulterated kindness, they have championed the idea of group level selection. They are the Kantians (or perhaps deists) of evolutionary biology. This group includes George R. Price, David Sloan Wilson, Elliot Sober, E.O. Wilson, and Oren Harman.

As some may know, Wilson recently co-authored an already notorious (and as Jerry Coyne explains, certainly dubious) paper in Nature asserting that kin selection is a chimera. Harman, for his part, recently published The Price of Altruism, which is part biography of George Price and part sermon extolling group level selection. Harman’s book was revealing in more ways than one: it exposed the metaphysics that I suspect motivates more than a few group level selectionists. George Price was an ecstatic (and eccentric) Christian.

This longish preface brings me to the point of this post: the “Trickster” figure who is found in the oral traditions of nearly all hunting and gathering peoples. Although this figure has been especially well documented among Native Americans, the trickster appears in nearly all world mythologies in one guise or another (e.g., Prometheus and Loki). After reading Paul Radin’s The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology and Mac Linscott Ricketts’ “The North American Indian Trickster,” I came across this astonishing explanation of the ancient and archetypal Trickster myths:

It is Boas’s contention that a sense of altruism is not likely to be very well developed in simpler societies, and so the members of such societies w0uld find it difficult to understand why a culture hero [i.e., the trickster] would want to benefit mankind.

The problem of motivation is solved, however, if the “benefits to mankind” are the accidental by-products of actions which the culture hero [or trickster] undertakes for purely selfish reasons. (Carroll 1984:110-111).

Boas offered this assessment in 1898 — long before anyone had considered the apparent contradiction of altruism in evolutionary terms. If Boas is correct, our ancestors had already considered the issue and resolved it without benefit of arcane equations or recourse to metaphysics: altruism is a byproduct of selfishness.


Ricketts, M. (1966). The North American Indian Trickster. History of Religions, 5 (2) DOI: 10.1086/462529

Carroll, M. (1984). The Trickster as Selfish-Buffoon and Culture Hero. Ethos, 12 (2), 105-131 DOI: 10.1525/eth.1984.12.2.02a00020

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