Oliver Stone’s most recent film tells the story of Edward Snowden’s circumstances, decisions and execution of a plan to publish evidence revealing spying practices of the National Security Agency. Snowden became convinced that the NSA was violating the constitution and infringing on the privacy rights of Americans and others around the world. As a result he became the world’s most famous whistle-blower. Today he lives in Russia, an exile from the U.S. justice system. Opinions about him and his actions remain highly polarizing in the United States and elsewhere. In the minds of some he is a traitor that harmed the country’s security in its battle against foreign threats. Others regard him as a patriot who defended the constitution and American citizens against egregious government overreach.

Narrative movies have a point of view and it is obvious that Stone’s POV shares in the latter interpretation. As a biological realist, this review has nothing to say about the merits of the film’s interpretation of his actions. Such matters are moral and political and the biological realist understands that all morality and politics are self-serving expressions of fitness enhancement. However, as a matter of efficacy, the biological realist lens does suggest ways in which the privileged narrative taken by Stone is misguided. A more biologically informed approach would not only be more realist and accurate, but might have provided a more credible understanding of the events and motives in the Snowden story. Further, it might have allowed a more effective execution of Stone’s apparent narrative intent.

Biologically realistic discussion of human motives and choices begins with the acknowledgement of our evolved dispositions. All mental activity is generated from our brain, which is purely biological material – there are no spiritual essences or eternal souls. There’s just biological matter. Mental activity from this biological material requires a structured, functional architecture and the only force known to structure biological matter into a functional architecture is evolution. Evolution selectively retains features that increase the fitness of the organism that possesses them; it is precisely this fitness that causes the retention of such features. And evolutionary fitness is proficiency at replicating the organism’s genes into the future. This is the process made famous by Richard Dawkins as the selfish gene.

Fitness does not have the same characteristics across all species, but generally it involves living long enough to produce offspring at, at least, an average rate and aid to kin that increases their fitness as long as such aid overall increases fitness: replicating the organism’s genes into the future. Understanding all this should provide us with a deeper understanding of hero celebrating. First, the hero, even if he appears to be making a sacrifice at a superficial level, cannot be assumed to be doing so from the perspective of biological realism. Those with the genetic disposition to engage in genuine self-sacrifice for others would be less fit: less successful at replicating their genes into the future. As a consequence, that genetic disposition would be eliminated from the gene pool as those without such genetic disposition to self-sacrifice would out reproduce them: better replicate their own genes.

The one exception to that dynamic would be sacrifice for closely related kin. If the math works, such sacrifice for close kin could actually improve fitness. No such possibility exists in sacrificing for unrelated strangers. Of course, there can be a variety of possible payoffs which would make heroic self-sacrifice a fitness enhancing trade off. Social status and prestige that comes with heroic acts can allow the individual to gain control over resources (in the contemporary world, through options like selling one’s story to the media or Hollywood) and both control over resources and social prestige are highly fitness enhancing. They can attract mates in general and this is especially true for males, as females in particular are attracted to such qualities. This female attraction is not socially constructed, but also biological reality, as is the fact that the overwhelming majority of individuals who engage in high risk heroic acts are males. These facts are explained by the evolved psychology of parental investment, which cannot be explained here.

There is another side to this story, too. For, how is it that a particular action comes to be framed as heroic, allowing the individual to benefit from increased prestige and possibly control over resources? The action must be celebrated by others. These celebratory actions too increase fitness. Those who take risks for non-kin provide an advantage for those who are not their kin. We all can benefit when the optimum number of people are prepared to risk their fitness for strangers: for we or our kin could be such strangers.

This is why we thank heroes so deeply and sincerely when they help us personally. And it is why so many participate in the larger society’s celebration and memorialization of heroics of all kinds. Even when they die in the effort, including soldiers returning from the battlefield in body bags: though they personally can never appreciate the thanks of a grateful nation, others observing may be moved to risk the same sacrifice, knowing they too will be memorialized.

And of course in the case of soldiers, and many other kinds of heroes, even if they do die in the process and cannot personally gain fitness advantage from their actions, the celebrating and memorializing of their actions can provide fitness benefits to their immediate kin. This can include both the elevated social status coming with honors bestowed upon the family, and the associated social capital, as well as tangible material benefits: from the charity of neighbors to various kinds of government and organizational programs that provide financial payouts to the hero’s family. These could be scholarships for the children or compensation payments to spouses or parents. It is common practice for terrorist and gangster organizations to financially support the families of their comrades in arms who have fallen in their duty to the organization.

So the biological realist perspective helps us understand that all celebrations of heroism are expressions of fitness enhancement. The original actor, though virtually always unconscious of the fact, is motived by anciently evolved mental mechanisms that motivate action that – though risky – has the potential for considerable fitness payoff. The rest of us, benefiting from the propensity of such people to risk their own fitness, celebrate and memorialize such actions, making a relatively small investment in the potential that sometime in the future, when we’re in need of someone who will risk their fitness to help us, such an individual will be so motivated.

There is the possibility that no fitness advantage comes from a heroic action. This would be the case of a miscalculation. As noted above, a systemic evolved psychology to sacrifice for others is not evolutionarily sustainable: the genetic disposition would be erased from the gene pool. It is though possible for a miscalculation about the fitness benefits arising from any act of sacrifice. This would be likely an aberration, though, since a systemic tendency to make such misjudgments would be equally as evolutionarily unsustainable.

From this perspective it is interesting to reflect upon Stone’s Snowden movie. The story is told as that of great personal self-sacrifice and risk. But of course we now understand that is only part of the story. What else motivated Snowden, unconsciously, we’d all likely never know. And though he is living under less than ideal conditions today in Russian exile, the final chapter is yet to be written. He could end up in an American prison, or even worse the rendition dungeon he worries about in the film. Or, he might he might be pardoned and wind up the toast of the town, doing an endless series of university lectures, TV interviews, selling books, and sought out for years as a commentator on matters of security, privacy and civil rights. Only time will tell. (Would it be surprising if he was awarded a Nobel Peace prize?) But of course he’s already achieved great social status in many circles.

Whether he’s in a position to cash-in that status in fitness benefits while living in Russia, I don’t know. It’s certainly not impossible. And obviously our evolved mechanisms to act in fitness enhancing ways were not evolved for the contemporary world of geopolitics. The precise details of the current situation had no impact upon the evolutionary pressures of the last 200,000 years that have given rise to the human mind. Yet, despite that, clearly there is real potential fitness benefit to him even now, and the potential for far more in the future.

This is not to denigrate Snowden in any way. Evolutionary wisdom teaches us there are no truly self-sacrificing heroes – named Snowden, Mother Teresa, or anything else. This is merely being realistic about our human nature. Nor is it a bad thing: for we do all benefit from the self-serving, fitness enhancing behavior of those like Edward Snowden. At the end of the film a live audience for a remote interview he does from Russia comes to their feet in a prolonged standing ovation.

Perhaps not immediately obvious to every film viewer is the interesting effect of how the camera pans adoringly across this standing crowd amid its ovation. For, just as they are celebrating and memorializing his actions with their applause, Oliver Stone is celebrating and memorializing their applause. They applaud in the anticipation of encouraging those who might take personal risk in their interest – notwithstanding whatever fitness benefit the risk taker does or doesn’t ultimately achieve – and at the same time Oliver Stone, visually as it were, applauds the applauders for applauding. He celebrates the celebraters: reminding us it is important to celebrate the heroes so that future environmental cues send strong signals for others to act likewise. Celebrating the celebraters of heroes is just as important as celebrating the heroes. (Those familiar with experimental psychology will recognize this as just the flip side of punishing the non-punishers of free rides in public goods games.)

As some of the great evolutionary scholars of the last half century – e.g. Richard Alexander, Robert Trivers, Robert Kurzban – remind us, we are evolved to a certain ignorance of and self-deception about both our own motives and the forces that shape our world. Most people are plenty happy enough to simply buy-in to the standard story of hero worship. Those who prefer a deeper and more empirically creditable understanding have to look into more nuanced and complicated places.

Perhaps understanding what’s happening in these situations ultimately changes nothing about their dynamics and implications. Maybe though such a summary conclusion is overstating the case just a little. There is plenty of reason to celebrate those who you consider to be heroes, regardless of the fitness benefits they gain. Knowing why you do it and not feeling jaded if they or their families do ultimately benefit might better inform your own choices of action.

Maybe the most important lesson of all, though, is a more informed and realistic understanding of the nature of the world. Ultimately, we all act from self-interest. Only an evolutionarily crude and naïve view of the world fails to appreciate that all the sacrifice, kindness, altruism and valor (and, yes, even love) in the world comes from that same fitness enhancing self-interest. Those who think that good acts are tainted by self-interested motives don’t understand biology and to the degree they act upon such ill-informed cynicism they place stress upon the very dynamics that have made human life and society so hospitable such a remarkable evolutionary achievement.

While Stone’s movie encourages us to celebrate the hero, but perpetuates the myth of his self-sacrifice, it only does half the job that biological realism requires. In the end, it is casts another shadow across the landscape of our common self-deception.