Some of the dysfunction of course comes from the youthful state of global civilization, which is still a work in progress. But the greater part is due simply to the fact that our brains are poorly wired. Hereditary human nature is the genetic legacy of our prehuman and Paleolithic past -- the “indelible stamp of our lowly origin” as identified by Charles Darwin, first in anatomy ("The Descent of Man," 1871) and then in the facial signals of emotion ("The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals," 1872). Evolutionary psychologists have pressed on to explain the role of biological evolution in gender differences, child mental development, status ranking, tribal aggression and even dietary choice.That sin is selfish, and morality cooperative, is an oft-repeated generalization that I think is completely wrong.
As I’ve suggested in previous writing, the chain of causation runs yet deeper, extending all the way to the level of the biological organization on which natural selection works. Selfish activity within the group provides competitive advantage but is commonly destructive to the group as a whole. Working in the opposite direction from individual-level selection is group selection -- group versus group. When an individual is cooperative and altruistic, this reduces his advantage in competition with other members but increases the survival and reproduction rate of the group as a whole. In a nutshell, individual selection favors what we call sin and group selection favors virtue. The result is the internal conflict of conscience that afflicts all but psychopaths, estimated fortunately to make up only 1 to 4 percent of the population.
On a petty, everyday level, much of the evil we encounter is simple selfishness -- no need to look any deeper into why that bastard cut you off in traffic, or why somebody stole your iPhone. But I think the really big evils are not especially selfish, except indirectly; I would say on the contrary that the big evils afflicting humanity are distortions of the cooperative impulse. The root of totalitarianism is not selfishness; it is wanting everyone to act as the group dictates. The inquisitors were not after personal gain; they were sacrificing their own time and energy pursuing a world in which everybody believes the same things. The secret policeman says, "Why aren't you cooperating?" To me the image of evil is not the serial killer, but a brigade of marching Nazis.
In American politics we have all sorts of fights that boil down to this. Ask small-town southern conservatives what they really want, and the answer is likely to be "a community where everybody gets along and follows the same rules and honors the same truths." Why do you insist on a right to be different? Why can't you just do what has always been done, what your neighbors do? On the opposite side we have liberals who claim to be tolerant but won't tolerate conservatives, in fact won't even try to understand what it is that upsets conservatives about the contemporary world. The problem with our politics is not individualism, it is twisted groupthink.
In practice the limit to gross immorality is not set by altruism, but by laziness and other forms of selfishness. The reason societies aren't more totalitarian is that people are too selfish to make the necessary sacrifices and do the necessary work. This strikes me as the lesson of the fall of the Soviet Union, along with the unraveling of Calvinist Geneva and many other such experiments. They were defeated, and their people set free, less by brave rebels than by human inertia.
To me the ultimate root of most evil is not selfish, but tribal; to me the most basic sin is dividing the world into us and them and insisting that our way is better. We may commit murder for selfish reasons, but war and genocide are cooperative crimes.
To get back to E.O. Wilson, I think his equation of individual selection with sin, and group selection with cooperative virtue, is utter nonsense. If we measure fitness by the number of offspring, then having friends matters a lot more than accumulating resources -- in many cases social behavior is selfish, going it alone ultimately self-destructive. Just figuring out what selfishness and altruism mean in the complex social world is often all but impossible. Did you really do that for someone else, or because you selfishly want to feel like an altruistic person? Wilson's simple model does great violence to both evolutionary biology and human history, and in psychological terms it is balderdash.
But then any Buddhist could have told him so: morality is found neither in extreme selfishness nor extreme altruism, but on the Middle Way.