A tiny fraction of us possess the ‘insect instinct’. Only a few of us can help, and even die for others, without any motive. Only a few can willingly sacrifice their lives for strangers. They are known to act selflessly. Can one remain selfless, if his or her survival is not possible by remaining so?

Charles Darwin seems to have a solution for all our problems. Darwin wrote, for a society to function, its members must perform services for each other. The problem he envisaged was that those who work for the good of a group are often at a disadvantage, compared with the ones who work for the good of themselves. How then do “prosocial” behaviours evolve? What is that hidden motive that prompts our generous deeds?

The theory of kin selection says that individuals willingly act to benefit those they are related to. The individuals are not so eager to pass on the benefits to those who are distantly related, or not related. Edward Wilson thinks this human behaviour is better explained by group selection, rather than kin selection. Wilson says the evolution of such species is of recent origin and represents a tiny fraction of all species on earth, including humans. According to group selection theory, the primary competition is between groups of individuals, who band together to build, defend, and provision a nest. It is in the nest, Wilson says, that division of labour evolves, with some venturing outside to forage and others staying behind to care for the young. Group loyalty, according to Wilson, is “at the root of both some of our finest and darkest impulses — our willingness to sacrifice for others and the xenophobia that underlies aggression against outsiders”. Wilson also says that groups consisting of altruistic individuals beat groups consisting of selfish individuals.

Some find Wilson’s logic hard to accept. They believe in the other side of the story, which says that evolution by natural selection should benefit the selfish members of the same group more than altruistic members. Darwin wrote, “High standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual and his children over other men of the same tribe.” He saw the solution to the problem at the group level. He said that a tribe with a high standard of morality (such as spirit of patriotism, courage and sympathy), willingly ready to help one another and for the common good, will be victorious over other tribes that do not possess such a high standard of morality.

The question remains: What is a selfless act? Is it ignoring one’s own interests at the cost of others? If we are interested in our own payoff by playing fair game, is it a selfish act? If an act has some purpose, can’t it be selfless?

It is said that a purpose presupposes a mind that conceived it. This means that one can’t become selfless unless one can conceive a selfless act, and also act on it. It is true that we are ruled by cold logic. But aren’t we also ruled by pure emotions? We value fair outcomes even if that doesn’t benefit us. The big problem is that we are more concerned about what others think about us than what we think about ourselves. A consequence of this problem is that we often do what we are supposed to be doing, and not what we should be doing. This is one of the reasons, a selfless act is easy to conceive, but difficult to implement.