Selfish Genes, Altruistic Politics, and the European Migration Crisis

A Syrian family disembarks from the Greek government chartered Eleftherios Venizelos ferry at the port of Piraeus on September 9, 2015. Thousands of refugees arrived in Piraeus by goverment chartered ferry from the overcrowded Greek islands, especially the island of Lesbos. EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled major plans Wednesday …
Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Concepts such as selfishness, self-interest, and charity are highly politicized in the modern era, and those who infuse them with political meanings are eager to claim the mantle of science to validate their positions.

A great deal of modern socialist politics is based on the notion that people are inherently “selfish” and must be forced to “do the right thing.”

Without the stern guiding hand of multi-billion dollar leftist activist government, streets would be lined with the corpses of the poor, abandoned by a callous, self-centered populace racing to line its own pockets. If the government wasn’t taxing away a huge slice of the national economy to finance a massive welfare apparatus, and that money was returned to the grubby little serfs and high-rolling robber barons who earned it, they’d just blow all their extra cash on conspicuous consumption. (This is one reason left-wing culture invests so much energy on teaching young people to loathe “consumerism.”)

Immigration debates are heavily infused with this politicized notion of selfishness. It’s built into the common smear of “nativist” directed at anyone who wants border security and citizenship laws taken seriously.  A “nativist” is a selfish person who wants to lock the deserving poor of other nations on the other side of a border fence, instead of “sharing the wealth” of his own prosperous society. “Compassion” demands open borders and mass migration from impoverished countries into rich ones.

Along those lines, New York magazine serves up an article entitled “Europe’s Refugee Crisis and the Biology of Human Altruism,” which begins by contrasting harrowing images from the Middle Eastern migration with laudable charitable efforts, heavily implying that anyone who isn’t on board with an open-arms welcome for the millions streaming into Europe is heartless and self-centered:

So many of the scenes coming out of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe have been chilling: the 71 men, women, and children whose decomposing bodies were found in an abandoned truck; the 34 who drowned when their boat capsized near a Greek island; the heart-stopping image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on the shore of a Turkish beach.

And yet amid the horror, there’s a glimpse every now and then of incredible human kindness. In Iceland, for example, thousands have volunteered to host Syrian families, or simply to provide them with some companionship. (“I can cook for people and show them friendship and warmth,”one Icelander wrote.) And in Turkey, Fethullah Üzümcüoğlu and Esra Polat spent the money that was meant for their wedding reception on food for 4,000 Syrians. At the national level, taking in refugees is expensive — at least in the near-term — but Germany has already pledged to accept 800,000, and many of the early arrivals were met with gifts at the train station. Many other Western European countries are having intense public debates, weighing the needs of desperate foreigners against the needs of existing citizens.

Of course, there’s no mention of the details global media don’t want you to dwell upon: the over 70% of the migrant population that consists of angry military-age males, their repeated use of force to breach security at every border they encounter, the full story of how that 3-year-old boy happened to be on a refugee boat, the strongly non-Syrian composition of the migrant tide, the very real security concerns posed by sweeping a huge population from a war-torn region filled with hostile militant theology and ideology into Europe with virtually no background checks, the impossibility of either economically or culturally assimilating such a large and rapid migrant population…

Also, the Germans have already begun having rather profound second thoughts about the 800,000 migrants they promised to take, prompting a cascade crisis of internal borders that threatens to tear the European Union apart.  One of the reasons Germany changed its mind is their realization that a lot more than 800,000 asylum-seekers were inbound, and their efforts to bully other EU nations into taking the burden were failing.

It’s not compassionate or altruistic to lure huge numbers of people into dangerous and futile migratory journeys with false promises.  Much of what our cultural elite dismiss with a sneer as “selfishness” actually consists of sensible people calculating how much can be given without fatally compromising the economic and cultural strength of the givers.  (They also understand something academics and elites teach themselves to forget, because they think it’s an icky idea that undermines multi-culturalist ideology: economic and cultural strength are linked in profound ways, each influencing the other.)

These allegedly “selfish” citizens are doing what airline safety videos encourage at the beginning of every flight: making sure their own oxygen masks are securely fastened before attempting to help others.  Authoritarian socialism, on the other hand, always spends (and wastes) more than its private economy can actually afford.  They don’t stop spending until they trigger a crisis massive enough to make the public shove the P.C. thought police aside and begin openly discussing “selfish” notions of fiscal restraint.

The New York article segues from that beginning to a discussion of evolutionary biology and theories that natural selection breeds a “selfish gene” into both men and beasts, programming them to elevate self-interest over sacrifice in the name of compassion.  As mentioned above, this is a crucial concept for “scientific” socialism, which would love to “prove” that people are cruel and self-centered by default, making a gigantic activist State necessary to achieve the most basic level of compassion for the downtrodden.  It’s difficult for any left-winger to get through a single speech without referencing some variation on this notion.  They always portray the alternative to huge, socialist government as a brutal wasteland of predatory laissez-faire capitalism stalked by corporate wolves, where the poor stumble along with invisible hands wrapped around their throats.  Likewise, the only alternative to massive illegal immigration is a racist fortress-nation protected by alligator-filled moats.

Interestingly, much of the professional testimony cited in the New York article actually refutes the notion that people are inherently selfish, and charity is rare without government compulsion:

But a more sophisticated understanding of altruism has recently taken hold among evolutionary biologists, including David Sloan Wilson, the distinguished SUNY professor of biology and anthropology who earlier this year published the book Does Altruism Exist? (Spoiler: His answer is a resounding yes.) It’s one of many (many) books out this year exploring the subject of altruism, and one of two by scientists who argue that humans are naturally good.

Throughout much of the 20th century, altruism was often dismissed by scientists as being too rare to matter, Wilson writes. Altruistic acts were aberrations, exceptions that ultimately proved the rule. And when scientists considered it at all, the explanation would usually come back to self-interest — namely, kin selection. If you do sacrifice something of your own in order to help someone else, it’s only to protect your bloodline. The obvious example from nature here is the mama bear putting her own life at risk as she fights off a hungry coyote that’s after her young cubs.

But in his book, Wilson argues that this way of thinking about altruism is much too narrow. “I think we’ve all been brainwashed to think that everyone is selfish,” he said in a phone interview with Science of Us. “And it’s against that background that we’re surprised by altruism. I think that if we consult our everyday lives, in our everyday experiences, we experience altruism and generosity all the time.” Wilson broadens the idea of natural selection to a group level, something he calls multilevel selection. His argument is that selfishness actually undermines the common good.

Anyone who has done work for a private charity knows that few of the donors are making even a subconscious calculation about strategies to maximize the efficiency of any collective entity.  They just want to help.  They honestly care about the poor and sick.  This kind of sincere altruism is vastly more commonplace than statist ideology would have you believe.  Among the factors that keep it from flourishing even more are the sense that Big Government is already handling charity with the exorbitant taxes it extracts from our paychecks, and fears that a particular charity might be either grossly inefficient or an outright rip-off operation.  Some of what sociologists dismiss as “tribal” charity to benefit clan and community is actually more about the search for trustworthy charities that bring the bulk of each donated dollar to the intended beneficiaries.

The New York article moves into theories that “extreme” altruists are hyper-enlightened souls who see all of humanity as their “tribe,” but treating them as evolutionary anomalies runs contrary to the enormous success of global charity organizations reaching back for decades.  People in the Western world have been donating a great deal of money to relieve disease, famine, and poverty in the Third World for a long time.  Judeo-Christian culture has a long history of charity on a grand scale, when the necessary resources are available.  It gives a very high percentage of what it can afford to give.  It’s actually prone to going too far and giving much more than it can really afford, to charitable endeavors that often turn out to be counter-productive, breeding inter-generational dependency instead of helping desperate people get through temporary rough patches.

The difference in the case of the Middle Eastern migratory wave is that charity doesn’t cover what is being demanded of European populations.  We’re talking about the permanent resettlement of their countries (and parts of the United States) by a foreign population with – let us be clear – a significant record of hostility to their ideals.

The numbers involves are so huge that citing individuals who make extraordinarily generous offers as models for national governments to follow is ludicrous.  Thousands of Icelanders have “volunteered to host Syrian families, or simply to provide them with some companionship?”  That’s nice, but it’s not going to make any difference at all, measured against an incoming tide that will be counted in the millions by the time all is said and done.  Also, there is a very large difference between “volunteering to host a Syrian family” (forever?) and offering “some companionship.”  Likewise, the Turkish couple that gave their wedding money to feed 4,000 Syrians for a day made a lovely gesture, but the sheer size of the refugee population makes the significance of such acts fleeting.

Donating huge sums of money to relief efforts is one thing, and both America and Europe have done that, to alleviate the suffering caused by Middle Eastern tyrants who act beyond their control.  Opening the gates to a demographic shift that will grow more profound with each passing generation is quite another.  When Germany is more like Syria, there will be no more German resources to help the oppressed people of Syria.  That course is not compassionate, it’s suicidal, and ultimately cruel.

Let’s knock off the “scientific” efforts to “prove” Western Man is a self-centered brute who must be dragged to enlightenment and mercy by his betters.  Charity does not require us to abandon reason, and generosity does not require us to abandon rational self-interest.  The farmer made to render his fields barren by tearing out all the produce and giving it away to the “deserving” is not doing anyone any favors in the long term.  If the developed world keeps providing easy relief valves for excess population from corrupt governments and brutal dictators, the worst parts of the world are never going to get any better, and the next migration will always be right around the corner.  Even people who see all of humanity as their extended family cannot reasonably believe that is what’s best for the world.

The economic and cultural systems required to produce American and European wealth – and thus finance the astounding levels of charity those nations should be better known for, to the benefit of both needy citizens and desperate foreign populations – are far more delicate than our elites believe. The people of these prosperous nations are entitled to expect their expensive governments to protect the social and economic systems that citizens and legal immigrants have worked for generations to build.