Apathy as the Evolutionary Norm

According to a popular stereotype, evolutionary theory implies that organisms should engage in rampant, bloody, unrestrained competition. If we take any two animals from anywhere in the world and throw them in a pit, they should start tearing each other apart. Yet they do not. Does this imply that nature is more cooperative than evolution can explain?

No. Ecologists have long understood that the typical interaction between any two individuals or species is neither competition nor cooperation, but neutralism. Neutralism means apathy: the animals just ignore each other. If their paths threaten to cross, they get out of each other's way Anything else usually takes too much energy. Being nasty has costs, and being nice has costs, and animals evolve to avoid costs whenever possible. This is why watching wild animals interact is usually like watching preoccupied commuters trying to get to work without bumping into one another, rather than watching a John Woo action film with a triple-figure body count.

Apathy is nature's norm. Predators ignore all but a few favored species of prey. Parasites usually focus their attention on just one species of favored host. Darwin pointed out that most of the violent competition happens within a species, because animals of the same species are competing for the same resources and the same mates. Evolutionary biology focuses on competition because competition between genes drives evolution. Nevertheless, animals usually tend to avoid competition as much as possible. In particular, evolution almost never favors spite, which means hurting a competitor at a net cost to oneself. The costs of spite are carried entirely by oneself and one's victim, while the benefits of hurting that victim are enjoyed by all of one's other competitors.

Since apathy is the default attitude of any one animal to any other, we need not seek any special explanation for human apathy towards other humans or other animals. The hard things to explain are costly behaviors that help others, and costly behaviors that hurt others. If we were typical animals, our attitudes to others would be dominated not by hate, exploitation, spite, competitiveness, or treachery, but by indifference. And so they are. Immanuel Kant suggested that we view people either as ends in themselves or as means to our ends. Neutralism suggests that we usually view them as neither—neither subject nor object, just an occasion for a blank stare and a lazy shrug. What evolution has to explain about human morality is why we ever do anything other than shrug when we see opportunities for care and generosity.

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