The Altruistic Brain – Part 1: The Evolutionary Roots of Altruism or You May Not be as Selfish as You Imagine


Why do people spontaneously risk their lives for strangers? In New York City, Wesley Autry jumped in front of a train to rescue a man who had fallen on the tracks. (  Why the hell did he do that? Based on the prevailing views of evolutionary biology, that was a really stupid thing to do because it might have gotten him expelled from the gene pool. Seriously, why would a person perform an act that benefits another, but could cause harm to himself? From an evolutionary point of view, aren’t we genetically programmed to ensure only our survival?

In his book, The Altruistic Brain, Dr. Pfaff, a neuroscientist, puts forward the Altruistic Brain Theory (ABT). (  This theory may seem radical, especially in the light of the current thinking of evolutionary biology. Is it possible that we could be motivated for the sake of goodness alone? Neuroscience starts from the premise that all our social behaviors are products of how our brains evolved. Pfaff argues that our brains evolved in such a way that altruism may be our default response, not an exception to the rule of selfishness, and that our actions can be good, with no ulterior motive. Goodness for the sake of goodness. According to ABT, and based on the recent findings of neuroscience, we are inherently good. We are fundamentally benevolent!

The operative assumption of evolutionary biology is that selfishness is a primary survival mechanism. “The survival of the fittest.” Aggression, anger and defensiveness are seen as default settings for survival. Consequently, many of us live with a psychic tension between who we feel we want to be and what evolutionary theory says we are. People doubt their own inherent goodness, because they look within themselves and doubt the purity of their own motives. (Well, at least this person does.)

In his book, Pfaff argues that, in fact, our brains are not aggression machines but instead are wired to propel us toward empathic behavior and feelings, leading to altruistic behaviors. He is not talking about heroic altruism, such as in the unusual action of jumping in front of a train. He is focused on everyday kindness and decency. According to him, these everyday acts of kindness make our lives livable. He argues that our brains evolved to make us care for each other because it is a superior survival mechanism.

An important implication of ABT is in terms of our relationships. Research has shown that through empathy we can share in and be affected by the emotional state of another. Empathy requires an emotional and cognitive connection. Pfaff suggests that this ability to connect and empathize with another is innate in brain circuitry.

One of the most compelling implications of ABT is that it can shift our working assumptions about human nature and our own sense of ourselves in ways that open us to new possibilities for how we live our lives. What might happen if we began to think and act as if we were inherently good? Is it possible that some deeper levels of soul healing can happen when we begin to relate to ourselves and to each other as essentially good and kind? And why would our brains evolve in this way? More on that in Part 2.

Brad Byrum, MA
MFT Intern
Supervised by Steven Dallmann MFT License #51178