Charles Handy considers the biological evidence for an altruistic gene, but doubts whether people can be expected to sacrifice their interests to those of their shareholders.
In 1876 Prince Peter Kropotkin escaped from a tsarist prison in St Petersburg. It was a daring escape which relied upon a message in a watch brought to him, at great risk, by a woman friend, another woman who played a violin as a signal, a friend who drove the getaway carriage, the physician who sat inside it, the various confederates who blocked the streets so that he could make his escape and others who hired all the various conveyances around to hamper any pursuit. By nightfall he and his friends were dining in a fashionable restaurant where the police would never think to look.
The story of Kropotkin's team-assisted escape forms the prologue to Matt Ridley's recent book The Origins of Virtue (Viking 1996) because, suggests Ridley, this experience was to colour the work for which Kropotkin was later to become famous: this was Mutual Aid, a prophetic work arguing that there are untapped instincts for co-operation in all of us, and that the world would be a better place if we recognised that fact. Kropotkin was arguing from his beliefs. Ridley says that there are good scientific biological grounds for thinking that he was at least partially right.
Ridley's book, fascinating though it is, and wonderfully well written, is not going to end up on many executive desks, being ostensibly a treatise on the implications of modern biological thinking. But the assumptions about human motives and instincts, which he lays bare in the book, lurk unexamined in our heads and colour much of our thinking today about economics and management and society.
Some of us are Hobbesians, believing that we are on our own in this world and that life is a war of all against all. Hobbes's intellectual heirs are Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher who believe that mankind is basically motivated by self-interest and the impulse to survive. It is the fittest who survive and thrive, from which it seems to follow that those who survive are those who deserve to thrive, who are, by self-definition, the fittest. In management this leads to what we think of as Darwinian methods of development - 'may the best men win' and let the others fend for themselves. It's a tough world, maybe, but it works.
Others of us are more inclined to the beliefs of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who painted a rather over-romanticised picture of mankind as basically virtuous creatures corrupted by civilisation. We are, after all, not purely selfish creatures. Why, throughout the ages, have men and women sought to scrimp and save for the good of their children, even to pass on to them what they have earned after they have died, something in which there can be no conceivable self-interest? Why, to go back to the beginning, would his friends have collaborated, at some risk to themselves, to spring Kropotkin from jail? We do care for others and are willing to co-operate out of pure goodwill. In management this translates into a policy of autonomous teams, trust and empowerment. People are basically well-intentioned if you give them the chance.
It is here that biology enters the game. It isn't just a matter of what you want to believe. It may be in our genes. Both sides have been able to find evidence in other species to support their case. Recent advocacy of the idea of the 'selfish gene' in biology has given support to the self-interest group, except that it seems the selfish gene can be unselfish in the short term if it ultimately benefits its descendants. A mother animal will sacrifice herself for her infants in order to keep the line intact and her genes continuing.
On the other hand, as Ridley shows, altruistic behaviour is as old as or older than the hills. Birds and bees, ants and primitive humans all go to extraordinary lengths to help each other or their society. In fact, biology and anthropology provide convincing evidence that the survival of any group ultimately depends on the co-operation, and even sacrifice, of its members. Whether this is bred into every species, or conditioned by their culture, it is still hard to say, but to lay down one's life for one's friends is not, apparently, such an odd thing to do.
Ridley's conclusion is that we should not be naive and think that we are all or always nice, but more importantly we should not exclude the possibility that we could be nicer than we often assume we are. Telling ourselves that we are self-interested and only self-interested may create a self-fulfilling prophecy, as more of us start to act on that assumption. That will inhibit the kind of trust and co-operation which societies and businesses need. In the workplace individual bonuses do little to promote group loyalty.
Biology seems to work best when the angel and the beast in us are both taken into account.
It also seems clear that altruism or co-operation is not blind. We, and other species, go against our own self-interest only when something bigger than us is at stake - the survival of our kith and kin or our immediate society. In other words, do not count on the angel in us unless there is some good reason for it. Why, for instance, should we expect people to sacrifice their interests for the benefit of shareholders whom they never meet, unless they or their kin benefit as well. Shareholder value as the driving force of business may be a logical economic theory but bad biology. My instinct would be to trust biology more than economics if only because it has been around a lot longer.