The Ethics of Climbing Everest and the Selfish Gene

Recently a New Zealander, Mark Inglis, who has had more than a few mountains to climb – real and personal – managed the almost unbelievable feat of climbing Mount Everest even though he is a double amputee. Inglis lost his legs just below the knees after a prolonged period of frostbite 24 years ago, when he got caught out in a snow cave for 14 days while trying to climb Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak.

I’ve never met Inglis but in a strange way I feel I know him. Perhaps I should say, I know parts of him: a sequence of grisly photos of the deterioration of his frostbitten feet, after he was rescued, used to be shown to New Zealanders going to Antarctica as a way of underlining the dangers that extreme cold can bring. It was usual for one or two people at the screening to faint. The shock part of Antarctica New Zealand’s approach to health and safety has long gone, but the awe I felt for Mark Inglis and his courage have remained.

What made Inglis’s achievement of trudging to the top of the world on carbon-fibre limbs even more notable was that on the way, 300 metres from his destination, he came across an English climber, David Sharp, sheltering beneath a rock and near death. Inglis, and some 39 other climbers on the mountain that day, left the Englishman to die a cold slow death and continued on with the final march to the top; the prize.

It’s a story that drips irony as much as it evokes sympathy for all involved. There is sadness for the loss of a life. There is empathy for the significance of goals that can only be achieved by the supreme effort of propelling bodies, let alone bodies with no legs, up 8850 metres. There is understanding that above 8000 metres simply walking, breathing, and even thinking, does not come easily. There seems little doubt that any rescue attempt would have been futile. It would certainly have been dangerous. But there is a part of me that wonders whether there is not a duty to at least try; whether I, in such circumstances, would have walked on to achieve my life’s ambition or abandoned it in an attempt to comfort, if not rescue, a dying fellow human. As Sir Edmund Hillary put it, “Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain.”

Of course, Mark Inglis was the least capable, least able person on the mountain that day to be in a position to render assistance. On the other hand, he more than anyone knows the value of being assisted by others as he had lain on a mountain, virtually given up for good, so many years earlier.

From an evolutionary point of view, Darwin’s natural selection will typically favour animals that behave selfishly: they live not just to climb another day but to have more breeding opportunities. The genes of the selfish are perpetuated at the expense of the selfless, as Richard Dawkins may have put it. However, there are specific circumstances when altruism may be advantageous. One of those circumstances is when the animal that will benefit from your actions is closely related to you. Darwin recognized this phenomenon, but it was John Maynard Smith who gave it a name: Kin Selection.

Yet, there is another, much rarer circumstance, where looking out for your fellows may be the best evolutionary strategy: it’s called Reciprocal Altruism. This postulates that you help others because they will help you when you need helping. Ordinarily in the animal kingdom this would not be a good tactic because it would always be open to abuse: animals that reaped the benefits of altruism from others but did not themselves reciprocate would inevitably be better off because they would not incur the costs that being altrusitic brings (be that giving up goals, putting your life at risk, or whatever). The selfish would be more likely to survive and breed, spreading selfish genes along with their seed. Reciprocal Altruism can only really work in societies with advanced communication and individual recognition – in other words, societies like ours – where those who don’t reciprocate are identified and ostracized in some way, thereby discouraging selfish behaviour.

So perhaps, just perhaps, the intense media attention Inglis is getting is no more than society’s mechanism to maintain selfless behaviour; the policing of reciprocity. I feel for Mark Inglis, but in a sense this story gives me hope too. Evolution has given humans the capacity to rise above the selfishness that characterizes so much of the rest of Nature.
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