Such explanations make good sense, even if they are not always quite this simple and straightforward, and even if there are areas where uncertainty remains. But unfortunately, some critics continue to misunderstand the basic idea behind them.
Consider the following criticism of Dawkins by one of the many authors who wrote responses to the new atheists a few years back:
“...Dawkins fails to recognize that none of [his] examples of 'morality' represent classical selfless altruism. In each case, the altruist has a vested self-interest in the action, a self-serving motive... the atheist version of morality implies that we only do good when there is something 'in it for us'.” (R. C. Metcalf, Letter to a Christian Nation: Counter Point, p. 9)
This author is not alone. I've come across the above criticism several other times, both in print and on the internet. And yet the objection completely misses the point.
According to these critics, the evolutionary account of moral behavior fails to explain altruism because it claims that the underlying reason for it is self-interested. Thus, they say, on the Darwinian view, those who are helpful to their neighbors aren't really being selfless: they only do it so that the neighbors will in turn help them.
That, however, is a misrepresentation of the view. What these critics don't understand is that the evolutionary account is an explanation of why we have feelings of empathy. The underlying reasons for our behavior that the view refers to are not the reasons we give to ourselves for acting. Rather, they are the reasons why we are naturally predisposed to act in the ways that we do.
To see how ridiculous their criticism is, imagine what they would say regarding a mother who goes hungry so that her child can have enough to eat. On their misunderstanding of the Darwinian account, this mother is not really being selfless. Instead, she has the self-interested desire that the genes she has passed along to her offspring flourish. But of course the Darwinian view does not claim that we make conscious calculations of what's in the best interest of our genes!
Similarly, it isn't that we are nice to a neighbor because we think that they might in turn be nice to us. We have evolved to be nice – to have the altruistic feelings that we have – because it is to our benefit to have those feelings. Thus, we do not perform selfless acts only when we realize there is “something in it for us.” We perform them when we have the altruistic motivation to do so – a motivation that, as it turns out, is usually good for us to have.