Field of Science

Brits and Yanks on the Titanic

Discovery News Top Stories: Manners Lowered Brits' Chances of Survival on Titanic, said my Gmail ad banner. Intrigued, I clicked the link.

It seems behavioral economists David Savage and Bruno Frey, looking through historical records, found that Britons had the highest death rate of any nationality aboard the Titanic, even though the ship's crew was British. There is anecdotal evidence that British politeness contributed to their mortality: Witnesses heard the captain saying "Be British, boys, be British!"--meaning for them to "queue up" and wait for women and kids. Meanwhile, Americans, whom some saw elbowing their way forward to board the lifeboats, had the highest survival rate of any nationality.

Behavior in all animals reflects a delicate balance between cooperative and selfish instincts. Human history, in particular, shows extreme examples of both greed and selflessness. These behaviors, like all others, are evolved; and reflect the multilayered incentives for selfish and altruistic behavior that run throughout evolutionary history.

Assuming Savage and Bruno are correct, it appeared the jerks took the day in this instance. If we suppose that evolutionary history contained many such "Titanic moments", in which the self-interested could elbow out the polite in the struggle for survival, one might conclude that only the selfish would emerge from evolution unscathed.

But there's more to the picture. We'll never know if more could have survived the Titanic had everyone on board worked together. Certainly fewer would have survived had everyone been fighting for a spot on the lifeboats. If we imagine many Titanics sinking in simultaneous, independent events, it's possible that more altruists would survive overall, because boats of mostly altruists would save a higher percentage of passengers than boats filled with arseholes. So there is a sense in which, while selfishness works on an individual level, cooperation may do better on a large scale. (This is essentially the group selection argument I refered to in this post--one of many explanations for why both altruism and selfishness are seen in the products of evolution.)

One can also ask how the social norms in America and Great Britain evolved to be this way. British and American people separated far too recently to have diverged genetically, but the two nations have certainly evolved culturally along different paths. An argument could be made that America, with its vast expanses of open (except for Native Americans) land and looser socioeconomic hierarchy, rewarded bold and individualistic behavior more than old, statified Britain.

Neither British nor American social norms were evolved specifically for the Titanic. Behaviors adapted for one context played out in another, resulting in a higher proportional survival for Americans, perhaps a lower total survival than if all the passengers were British.

In considering the behaviors we'll need to survive in a world of global interconnection and environmental fragility, it's important to remember that behavior evolves in context. If we can anticipate the kinds of behaviors we'll need in the future, can we also anticipate the changes we'll need to make to start evolving these behaviors now?

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