Altruism, in anthropology, evolutionary psychology or sociobiology, is an action which is costly to the actor, but beneficial to the recipient. It can be seen in animals, when parents work hard and expose themselves to danger to feed their own children.

Reproduction is not the only way to increase the frequency of a gene - helping someone else with that gene to reproduce helps too. Your genes are interested in making more copies of themselves, not just in getting you to reproduce. (Sorry)

Genes operate with a particular form of fitness utilitarianism: the value of improving the fitness of someone is directly proportional to the amount of shared genes with that person. This includes yourself.

In order to get people to act this way, genes for all sorts of good things evolved - in humans, things like love, sympathy, etc. You are not just interested in reproducing anymore - getting your kids to successfully reproduce is also valuable, as is helping out your family. So, you have to treat them well. Altruism is why people love their children.

Altruism is also why parents go on loving their children for their whole life, but why children eventually grow to love their own children more than their parents. It's because the genetic overlap is the same between the two, but an investment in the fitness of the children is more valuable.

This is an analysis of altruism I wrote to a school newspaper, slightly modified for E2 :

Altruism. It is a noble concept- an idea that nearly everyone would agree upon as a Good Thing. I am not going to dispute its meaning, but its worth and to some extent its validity. Many people swear that giving is the greatest good, a virtue above all others. That sounds wonderful in principle, but some part of me just doesn’t accept it. Before you start to conclude that I am an arrogant, selfish elitist, please take heed and consider my following words.

Why do people give? Some do for the sake of friendship, others simply because they feel it is right. Regardless of one’s own motive, does one not give in order to receive? Whether it is to gain a meaningful bond, or to fulfill the requirements of your moral code, or simply to generate a positive emotion, the harsh reality is that a profit always exist for the giver. Thus, the sacred, admirable selfless act does not truly exist.

The counterpoint to the prior claim is that of all selfish acts, giving without expecting anything in return is the least selfish, and therefore still the most virtuous. To those who stick by this belief and live by it, I am going to present an alternative approach to live virtuously that hopefully, just maybe, even a priest can accept.

Some are obsessed with activism. They push the grim truths of wretched humanity found across the globe into our little secluded world. Indignantly they try to expose this suffering to the community and are perplexed and utterly dumbfounded as to why we don’t do something about it. The non-activists see this raw injustice in every gory and loathsome detail, and their spirits are moved, but they do not act. Perhaps some fear to, or others just don’t care. Why do their souls not twist and cringe in agony, and why does their every limb not feel compelled to help those who are in need?

The answer to this seeming flaw in human nature is quite simple, but not easy to accept. Every person on this earth has their own individual interests, or their own “niche” in society. Whether one wishes to be a doctor, a librarian, an activist, or even a priest, their intentions are still individualistic. The beast of capitalism aside, all these roles serve society- they give, and the only thing they expect in return is their own personal gratitude for a job well done.

The key to understanding why altruism is limited is this: To follow your individualistic needs is fundamentally to give without expecting anything but personal gratitude (remember that any giving always involves at the least an emotional gain). There is virtually nothing a person can do that will not somehow benefit another. Even if a person commits unjust acts, do others not learn from it? Thus, if your individualistic ideal is to be activist in the pursuit of altruism, so be it- but consider that it may not be mine, although I will still contribute to society the way I want to.

There is substantial disagreement in the scientific literature among the camps of two very important sociobiologists, Robert Trivers, proponent of the "reciprocal altruism" theory, and W.D. Hamilton, proponent of the "kin selection" theory of altruism (which employs the concept of "inclusive fitness," a term coined by Hamilton himself). In fact, Hamilton and Trivers define altruism in a way that is quite contemptuous to the other.

In his famous 1971 paper, Trivers balks at Hamilton's kin-targeted altruism because he says that it "takes the altruism out of altruism." Hamilton retorts that Trivers has it wrong—that an altruistic act for which reciprocity is expected can hardly be called "altruistic" with a straight face.

Faced with this fundamental disagreement in the literature about what a scientific view of altruism is, I crafted my own definition. It would be equally disagreeable to both Trivers and Hamilton, but hopefully it will be general enough for someone to use it in discussions of sociobiology that are not biased in favor of any a priori conclusion about how altruism and natural selection affect each other. Here is my definition of (biological) altruism:

altruism:   the provision of labor, goods, or other resources, by one organism (the 'donor') to another organism (the 'target') in such a way that this provision:
  1. in fact enhances the target's fitness for survival and/or reproduction;

  2. AND,

  3. incurs, or would have the potential to incur if frequently reiterated, a significant net cost to the donor's fitness for survival or reproduction, without regard to the existence or absence of any putative reciprocal, compensatory, or otherwise-indirect benefit to the donor, and without regard to any benefit—whether potential, extant, or merely imagined by the donor—to copies of such donor's genes residing in the target.

Here are references for the most famous papers of Hamilton and Trivers:

A thought.

I cannot think of a more common example of collective altruism than driving.

Despite the fact that everyone is going somewhere, and usually would do better to get there faster, there is an immense amount of selfless regard for other drivers on the road.

Think about it. Every time I have been stuck in a shitty lane, someone (eventually) lets me in, even though this will only make his drive longer. Still I dare-say most people have done it at least once. Moreover, there is no reward for such good behavior. In fact, the best one can hope for is a polite wave from a person you never saw and probably never will again. I mean, if you compare driving in traffic to waiting in line, then this behavior is ridiculous. Rarely does anyone let someone else cut him in line, it pisses off everyone behind you and yet it is courteous and not uncommon practice on the road.

So kudos to drivers. Funny how the cause of so much rage is also such a good source of altruism.

Robert Heinlein once said, "Beware altruism. It is based on self-deception, the root of all evil." He also said, "If tempted by something that feels 'altruistic', examine your motives and root out that self-deception. Then, if you still want to do it, wallow in it!"

What's really so bad about words like 'selfish' and 'self-centered'? Look at what those words mean, and then ask yourself if those are bad traits or not.

Altruism always makes me nervous, whether I find it in someone else or in myself. It worries me to think that people can lie to themselves so effectively, and it frightens me that I can still do it sometimes, too.

Al"tru*ism (#), n. [F. altruisme (a word of Comte's), It. altrui of or to others, fr. L. alter another.]

Regard for others, both natural and moral; devotion to the interests of others; brotherly kindness; -- opposed to egoism or selfishness.


J. S. Mill.


© Webster 1913.

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