Natural (product) Selection

The purchase of life insurance seems to contradict human nature. Why would people buy a product which serves the interests only of others and not themselves, and does so when they die? Certainly, life insurance can have a living benefit in the form of cash value in permanent policies; nonetheless, policies are bought first and foremost for the survivors of the insured, and their greatest values are derived from the death benefits.

What is so important about that benefit, and why have millions of consumers in the past several hundred years paid a huge sum to collectively provide trillions of dollars to their survivors?

The answer may lay with a fascinating article about human nature by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that appeared recently in the New York Times. Rabbi Sacks is the current Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, and an esteemed scholar and moral philosopher. He often provides keen insight into the apparent dilemmas and contradictions of the human condition, and can teach not only people of all religions, but also people to whom religion is not important yet who yearn to understand life.

The article is entitled “The Moral Animal”[i]. It was written at the time of year in which major western religions were celebrating major holidays, in an effort to explain why these religions have endured over time. The Rabbi makes the point that, in spite of the dire predictions of many critics about the imminent demise of religions, the majority of people both in Great Britain and the United States still declare allegiance to a religious faith. Furthermore, he says, superpowers tend to last a century, yet the great faiths last millenniums.

Why is that?

Rabbi Sacks brings forth a suggestion from none other than Charles Darwin himself. Mr. Darwin was puzzled, he explains, by the survival of altruists. Shouldn’t natural selection favor the ruthless? Therefore, shouldn’t altruists – those people who risk their lives for others – die out before passing their genes on to the next generation? How, then, do we explain the value placed on altruism by human and animal societies alike? Mr. Darwin seems to propose, according to the Rabbi, that we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not only for their own benefit, but also for the sake of the group as a whole. Furthermore, Rabbi Sacks references the research of neuroscientists who have identified “mirror neurons” that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are “hard-wired for empathy”, he says.

Rabbi Sacks goes on to explain how religious organizations bind people into groups through habits of altruism. They help members to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help people in need, and perform many other acts that serve people above and beyond themselves. That is why they endure.

It goes without saying that many, many people perform selfless deeds without the assistance of religious affiliation. It is also true that many non-religious organizations facilitate help for others. The overall message is what counts here: acting on behalf of others is very much the human norm, and from the point of view of evolutionary biology, can account for not only the survival, but the tremendous advancement, of our species.

In this light, the purchase of life insurance is quite the natural thing to do. We are programmed to make sure the next generation will survive and prosper. The very act of securing the finances of our children, our businesses, and our estates is an expression of our instinct for life to go on.


[i] Jonathan Sacks, “The Moral Animal”, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/24/opinion/the-moral-animal.html?_r=0 (Dec 2012).