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This month, we chat with John Protevi (Professor of Philosophy and Phyllis M. Taylor Professor of French Studies at Louisiana State University) about whether human beings may have evolved an altruism instinct. Click here to listen to our conversation.

Thomas Hobbes famously argued that deep down, we’re all selfish creatures. Some philosophers think that disaster situations are test cases for this hypothesis, because it’s in the midst of a crisis that we shed all of our politeness and express our natural instinct for self-preservation. However, John Protevi argues that disasters really reveal more about our prejudices–that in spite of the fact that recent major disasters actually gave rise to cooperation, they were reported as having given rise to frantic competitiveness. He argues that in fact, most of the evidence in paleoanthropology, evolutionary psychology, and sociology seems to favor the hypothesis that we evolved to cooperate with one another.

However, the idea of an altruistic instinct, as we saw in Episode 26, raises some philosophical challenges. Are psychological traits something that individual organisms evolve, or something that entire populations can evolve? Is it the need to keep safe during wartime that creates the selection pressure to evolve in this way, or is it something else? Figuring out how an instinct to work together with other people may have come about involves carefully weighing lots of evidence.

Join us as our guest takes us through some of this evidence!

Matt Teichman