Even at the best of times, Christmas can be a season of contradictory feelings. There is a yearning to enjoy the season of goodwill with our relatives and yet their proximity often creates friction. For many families, it is the only time of year we get to spend together, yet we resent the stress that this creates.
The Covid-19 pandemic will only amplify this angst. It is hard to predict how the situation will change, but it seems unlikely that the second wave will have receded by 25 December. If the virus is still circulating widely, our celebrations will pose a danger and we will have to decide between taking that risk and celebrating alone. Boris Johnson has repeatedly asserted the government will do “everything we can to make sure that Christmas for everybody is as normal as possible”, yet his chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance echoed the warning of a senior Scottish health official that a “digital Christmas” cannot be ruled out.
Why would we be prepared to put our ourselves and our loved ones at risk for the sake of turkey and charades?
These traditions are deeply embedded in our culture, but recent developments in evolutionary psychology suggest the knotty and conflicting emotions they inspire may have deeper origins. While it cannot provide simple solutions to our dilemmas, a knowledge of our evolved instincts may help us to approach Christmas with a little more clarity of thought.
According to evolutionary theorists, most of our social connections rely on a sense of reciprocity that brings mutual benefits. In prehistory, we might have shared our food with allies during times of scarcity in the knowledge that they would do the same for us; the balance of give and take is essential for the survival of the relationship. “Implicitly or explicitly, people keep track of favours given to friends, even close friends,” says Dr Samuel Roberts at Liverpool John Moores University.
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For family members, however, we have an additional motivation for altruism, arising from an evolutionary process known as “kin selection”. This theory, popularised in Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene, centres on the fact that our close relatives – our siblings, nieces, nephews and grandchildren – share many of our genes. By aiding our nearest kin, we can therefore protect part of our genetic lineage. “In evolutionary terms, I can pass on my genes through my own kids or by helping out my sister and her kids,” says Roberts. This means we have evolved an instinctual urge to care more about family members than friends, even if we share little in common besides our genes – and we don’t keep such a close watch on the reciprocal give and take.
Although the theory of kin selection may seem too cynical and simplistic to explain human behaviour, there is strong evidence it drives many of our feelings and actions. Working with Robin Dunbar and Oliver Curry at the University of Oxford,