Interestingly enough, all these terms are only meaningful within the context of cooperation, since a selfish individual is one that acts against the cooperative group and an altruistic individual is one that willingly acts for the cooperative group (selflessness). Given these “loaded” terms and the emotional concepts they convey, it is useful to consider the actual biology at work.
At root, living organisms are an emergent property of chemistry. Without chemistry no life can exist. Therefore whatever else we may envision regarding life, we must consider that all processes (known or unknown) must reduce to a chemical interaction.
This leads to a major property of biological systems that is often ignored. Instead of considering selfishness, cooperation, or altruism, the primary property at work is one of “indifference”. It literally makes no difference from the perspective of the components involved what the outcome may be. A collection of Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen atoms are indifferent to whether Carbon Dioxide is formed or Water. Their actions will be governed by proximity, energy, and a variety of quantum rules that have no intended outcome. Similarly, the chemical processes that govern biology are indifferent to the possible outcomes. A mutation to a gene may or may not be beneficial to the organism involved, but the gene itself is indifferent to the result.
While it can be a novel perspective to consider biology from the gene’s perspective, it is completely incorrect. The components of a gene are essentially immortal (the atoms that make up the molecules), so there is no preferred outcome since they will continue to exist albeit in a different configuration. Therefore if we were to consider the gene’s perspective we would likely find that it is probability and the possibility of billions of chances that is governing outcomes (i.e. inheritance). A gene would be indifferent to the notion of expressing itself as the digits of a human hand versus a chimpanzee or a dolphin.
If anything, it might be argued that the entire chemical process of biology is attempting to reach varying stages of equilibrium which are represented by conserved processes that are used and reused in a wide range of species. Once again, this isn’t to assign “intent” to the genes, but rather to indicate that all instability must either collapse or reach a point of stability whereby its future is then reasonably assured.
Considering the example of Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms, it isn’t their intent to form water, but if the conditions are right, they will do so. If conditions aren’t suitable, they are certainly not averse to existing in other forms. However, once such stability is achieved, it essentially becomes a fixture against which others changes can then occur.
While the universe is moving towards increasing entropy, the constant bombardment of energy on the earth results in a perpetual pool of chaotic interactions, until some degree of stability is achieved which neutralizes the “randomness” and allows some progress towards harnessing this energy into more stable configurations (i.e. elements, compounds, and perhaps life).
Perhaps it is this push towards stability which provides the necessary “drive” to create new forms and novel ways of expressing structures to capitalize on the abundant energy provided by the sun.