How nice behavior evolved

RadioLab had a good program this week on altruism and how nice behavior could emerge out of natural selection. The first part dealt with the tragic story of George Price, the eccentric but brilliant scientist who developed an equation that showed why someone might sacrifice their life for another. But he personally could not deal with the conclusion that all altruism was not a freely chosen act.

The second section dealt with the stories of three people who risked their lives to save that of total strangers.

The third looked at the work of Robert Axelrod who developed the idea of having computer algorithms that played the Prisoner’s Dilemma game with each other to see which strategy worked best. (For more on how this relates to religion, see here.)

And the final segment dealt with the famous story from World War I about German and British soldiers facing each other in the trenches who arrived at a truce, and that showed how nice behavior could emerge even in warfare. Sadly, the generals on each side did not want a truce and managed to get them to start killing each other again, with horrific results.