Reason as the Leading Motive

Evolutionary Roots of Altruism

Posted by Jerry on June 26, 2007

Either there are more empirical studies being conducted these days that attempt to reveal an evolutionary basis for altruism or such studies are merely getting significant media attention. I have come across several news articles recently that report on scientific studies on altruistic behavior in animals–particularly, chimpanzees–and thus hinting at the idea that humans are innately altruistic or have biologically evolved to retain an altruistic tendency.

Whatever the case is, I hardly see these studies on the possible evolutionary roots of altruism as a philosophical claim to holding altruism as a moral principle. There is a difference between saying “we have biologically evolved to have a characteristic” and “we must act in accordance to our biological tendencies.” Every action open to our choice and within the realms of our conscious awareness falls under the domain of morality and is therefore also open to moral scrutiny.

While some of us may have a greater predilection for anger, depression, addiction, or emotional volatility–which may be rooted in our genes to some extent–these actions are also at the disposal of our consciousness and require the use of our volitional faculty.

As another analogy, I believe pedophilia has causes similar to homosexuality (be it biological, environmental, or both); nonetheless, the former is fully immoral whereas the latter is not, and both are open to our conscious choice in manifesting the actual behavior.

Thus, claiming to find evolutionary roots to altruism–an area that is still highly unclear and adulterated with moral and political agendas–does not give logical credence to the claim that altruism is a categorically moral principle to be followed. To make that judgment, the principle of altruism will need to be subjected to the scrutiny of consciously rational, logical, and philosophical analysis, which is the domain of philosophers not evolutionary scientists.

[HT: John’s Rhyme of the day]


3 Responses to “Evolutionary Roots of Altruism”

  1. Cheri MacLean said

    Seems to me there are other species besides humans that have instances where a member helps out another, even though there is no perceived “immediate” reward. Female wolves will frequently help raise pups that are not their own as long as they are part of the same ‘pack’; many species of monkeys and apes are known to groom each other; and wild horses have been known to protect a blind horse in the herd from outside dangers.
    Perhaps altruism is about survival, or perhaps is is just about being a good neighbor.

  2. Ergo said

    Yes, I will admit that helping others can sometimes be instrumental to your own survival–especially if you’re talking about animals that depend on their herd mentality or instinct, i.e., animals that move about in herds and depend on each other to ensure survival. But helping yourself first also ensures your survival–particularly when you’re talking about human beings.

    In any case, “altruism” is a concept that has specific philosophical connotations. Therefore, I find it inappropriate that evolutionary biologists describe animal behavior as altruistic–as if these animals are making conscious efforts at calculating the risks and sacrifice of their own values while engaging in self-sacrificial actions to the benefit of another animal. This is most certainly not the case. Therefore, it would be more appropriate to scientifically discuss such seemingly “altruistic” actions among animals in the background of concepts more *applicable* to science and animal behavior–such as in the background of survival and procreation strategies, instinctual motivations, herd mentality, reinforcement mechanisms, protection of offspring and progeny, hunting and gathering instinct, etc. etc.

    Besides, for every example of altruistic behavior scientists identify among animals, there is an equally (or perhaps greater) number of examples of brutal and violent behavior also observed among them. As an example, it was recently discovered that hippos (who were normally considered peaceable herbivores) eat their dying young ones in some kind of group ritual and can be very violent towards each other.

  3. Monica said

    “Therefore, I find it inappropriate that evolutionary biologists describe animal behavior as altruistic”

    Hm, well I’m a taxonomist and I don’t have a problem with it. 🙂 Although the word altruism has its roots in philosophy, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to describe biological behaviors as altruistic, so long as we recognize that we are talking about two different concepts. One word, two concepts. It would be pretty much impossible, and I think, unacceptable, for biologists to stop using the word “altruism” when they know what they are talking about with regard to non-human organisms and have been using the terms for about 100 years or more.

    I have found in conversations between biologists and philosophy tyes that one must be absolutely clear about which definition is being used. Otherwise it can lead to some pretty nasty arguments! You are correct: the human concept of altruism is absolutely not applicable to other species. This is something that most biologists and philosophers don’t recognize, unfortunately, because a lot of them don’t believe that humans have free will. That’s the real problem – in which case the definitions become more similar. In any case, you’re correct. The presence of altruism in other species is not a philosophical argument for why humans should be altruistic. We already know that altruistic behavior in humans is detrimental to human survival.

    The definition of altruism in biology is quite different than the philosophical definition. It is not just “helping” another individual out. An altruistic behavior in biology is a behavior that benefits another individual, while decreasing the actor’s own reproductive fitness. Period. There are very few such behaviors in the biological realm. For you to superfically recognize an organism “helping” (an)other individual(s) within its own species may not necessarily be an altruistic act at all, because that act may actually benefit the individual’s reproductive fitness. The herding behaviors, etc. are examples of this. If those animals did not live in herds, they would die. These behaviors don’t decrease individuals’ reproductive fitness, they increase it. Therefore it is not altruism. Honeybee worker behavior is often described as altruistic, but it is not, either. (Biologists call it eusocial behavior.) The workers have reproductive fitness benefits to forego their own reproduction and help the queen reproduce. The genetics of this is complicated, but it can be shown mathematically.

    It is almost impossible to point to any biological act of any species in the moment and say “Hey that’s altruistic.” It takes years of research to determine whether actions in a particular species are altruistic in a biological sense, because you have to calculate the reproductive costs and benefits of that action. Possible altruistic acts that I can think of might be kin selection in jaybirds, and there are some acts of altruist in slime molds… but these tend to be balanced by “cheating” behaviors in other individuals of hte same species that do not act altruistically… therefore, most species do not behave in a truly altruistic way. Not all of the individuals act altruistically. These two examples are literally all I can think of in all kingdoms of life.

    If altruistic behavior does exist in a species, all individuals must act altruistically for it to work or the altruistic behavior will eventually cease to exist, assuming the altruism is extreme and the altruistic behavior is highly heritable.

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