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Does true altruism exist among humans?

Ever since Auguste Comte coined the term ‘altruism’, researchers in the fields of psychology and evolutionary biology/psychology have endeavoured to propose ideas to explain the phenomenon. Altruism refers to the desire to benefit someone else for his or her sake rather than one’s own (Batson 2011). Its implications for understanding the true nature of human motives in addition to the lack of clear evidence for its existence, has generated a debate lasting centuries – and which is still on-going.

Evolutionary biologists were quick in putting their own twist on altruism, and forming the concept of biological altruism where the altruistic behaviour of an animal benefits the reproductive fitness of other animals at the cost of its own reproductive fitness (Bell 2008). Although this ideologically opposed Darwin’s theory of natural selection (since altruism would be a disadvantage on an individual level), it prompted Darwin to propose that maybe altruism could operate on a group level. In this case, the actions of an altruistic individual would be of benefit to the whole group, and if this group consisted of members also exhibiting altruistic behaviours, then the group has an obvious survival advantage to one where individuals are selfish (Darwin 1871) – consistent with natural selection.

The evolutionary biologists Williams (1966) and Maynard Smith (1964) showed that this idea of group selection was actually a weak force in evolution. Perhaps the most critical reason for their argument was the idea of ‘subversion from within’. This was further alluded to by Dawkins (1976), who explained that within groups there could be selfish individuals that exploit the altruistic behaviour of others for their own benefit, and that ‘selfish’ genes of this individual would be sufficient to wipe out the altruists. The question of what accounted for biological altruism still remained open, however.

Two alternative theories that gained prominence over the idea of group selection were ‘kin selection’ (Hamilton 1964), and ‘reciprocal altruism’ (Trivers 1971; Maynard Smith 1982). Kin selection provided the explanation between individuals which are related, such that even if the altruistic behaviour of an individual comes at a cost to itself, its genes (shared by the related individual) will still be passed on, even if it is by indirect means. Hamilton initially called this ‘inclusive fitness theory’, but it was Maynard Smith who coined ‘kin selection’ – either way, the theory is well described by Hamilton’s rule, an equality predicting that altruistic actions are favoured when br>c (with c and b being the cost and benefit to actor and recipient, respectively, and r, their relatedness) (Foster et al., 2006).

Although quite useful, the kin selection theory does not account for all altruism. It does not explain the altruism exhibited across different species and between non-relatives. Trivers (1971) proposed the theory of reciprocal altruism, where acts of altruism are repeatedly exchanged between two unrelated individuals – consistent with the principle ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. Continuous repetition of this interaction would ultimately result in reciprocal cooperation strategies, which would allow this type of altruism to evolve (Trivers 1971).

The theories described above have been presented in accordance with biological altruism, where the emphasis is on the consequence of reproductive fitness and not conscious intention/motivation, as would apply to human altruism. This is not to say that genes have no influence, but that the conscious beliefs and desires (absent in animals) experienced by humans, in addition to culture (which affects humans to a far greater extent than animals) have greater influences on human behaviour (Okasha 2003). Having said that, it is fair to point out that some human behaviour is consistent with the ideas of kin selection and reciprocal altruism: an example present in everyday life; as a general rule, individuals are more likely to be more altruistic towards close kin than non-relatives. Similar observations in life can be seen with reciprocal altruism, where it’s more likely for an individual to be altruistic to non-relatives if they themselves were the beneficiaries of altruism from the non-relative. In the iterated ‘prisoners’ dilemma’, long-lasting interactions with memories from previous encounters are successfully undertaken when a ‘tit for tat’ strategy is utilised; the ‘nice’, ‘forgiving’, ‘retaliatory’ and ‘clear’ properties of this concept are consistent with reciprocal altruism where a mutually beneficial interaction is facilitated (Axelrod 1984).

As alluded previously, evolutionary theories seem to emphasise more on biological rather than cultural aspects of altruism. To clarify things, Sober and Wilson (1998) made a clear distinction between evolutionary altruism and psychological altruism (true/real altruism), and also that they are not in any way connected. They say ‘Evolutionary altruism refers to behaviour by one organism that reduces its reproductive fitness – its potential to put its genes in the next generation – relative to the reproductive fitness of one or more other organisms’, and this is consistent with the proposed theory of Ridley & Dawkins’s (1989) in relation to “reproductive success”. ‘Psychological altruism refers to a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare’ – consistent with human altruism.

Sober and Wilson (1998) note that parental nurturance might serve as a genetic substrate for human altruism, and that this has been largely ignored. Their distinction (above) may allow the recognition of psychological altruism as a process like parental nurturance, without which, our species would have vanished long ago. Such altruism may be so thoroughly woven into the fabric of our lives that its importance has failed to be recognized.

There are frequent instances of human behaviour which seem highly anomalous with respect to these theories of reciprocal altruism and kin selection. Such cases are organ/blood donation, philanthropy, and martyrs. In all these cases what is carried out for others is certainly amazing.

There are the religious figures, such as Mother Teresa, who spent years tending to and bringing care and comfort to thousands, and, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., probably best known for the tireless pursuit of his dream of racial equality and justice in the U.S.

There are the many unsung rescue heroes in the emergency services such as those who lost their lives to direct others to safety on September 11, 2001.

There are the cases of holocaust rescues in Nazi Europe, where individuals like Miep Gies (1987) (who helped hide Anne Frank and her parents) risked not only their own lives, but the lives of loved ones. Also notable is Oskar Schindler who saved several thousand Jews in Poland from death.

There are the bystanders and responsive victims who courageously put themselves at risk; for example, Arland Williams lost his life in icy waters because he repeatedly gave up his place on the rescue helicopter to others (Air Florida flight 90 crash, January 13, 1982).

There are the aid workers and volunteers who place themselves in extreme circumstances and in great danger in order to help those afflicted with war or disease, such as in the case of the Ebola epidemic.

There are cases of philanthropy, where individuals pay large sums of money for charitable causes, to improve the lives of those less fortunate.

Finally, there are the donors and volunteers who donate organs and blood and give up their time to various institutional settings. But the list can go on.

These examples represent only some acts which could be interpreted as altruism. Although it may seem cynical to put such acts under scrutiny, doing so may enable us to get closer to understanding whether humans can truly be altruistically motivated.

Perhaps such actions were the only option which would allow them to avoid having to live with the tension, shame, guilt, censure and unpleasant arousal caused by the knowledge that nothing was done, and that the action was a way of reaching such an egoistic goal – the so called ‘reducing aversive arousal’ (Batson 2011). Perhaps the individuals were seeking rewards in an imagined ‘after-life’ or the rewards of seeing themselves, or alternatively, being seen by others as a noble, courageous or good person – or a so called ‘warm glow’ inside (Harbaugh et al., 2007). Maybe this was just the reaction to the pressures of the situation without any clear goals – “What else could I do?” – a common response of rescuers in answering why they risked ‘life and limb’; which although seems to reflect modesty, may also be a true depiction of the lack of other options at the time (Batson 2011).

To reiterate, altruism refers not to helping or heroic helping, but to a form of motivation with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare. If these cases are considered with this definition in mind, then it is not possible to ascertain the true nature of the motive(s) which may underlie the actions in any of them. The behaviour may be sufficient from the beneficiaries’ perspective, but it is crucial to understand not only that humans are capable of these great things, but also, why.

Some studies in molecular genetics have shown that humans could be genetically predisposed to be more altruistic. One prominent study investigated COMT Val158Met as a dopaminergic candidate polymorphism for altruistic behaviour (Reuter et al., 2010). When altruism was assessed by the amount of money donated, carriers of at least one Val allele donated approximately twice as much as those without a Val allele – indicating that the Val allele, representing strong dopamine catabolism, may be related to altruism (Reuter et al., 2010). Further to this, neurobiological studies such as that carried out by Moll et al. (2006) showed that the mesolimbic reward pathway was activated when both pure monetary rewards and charitable donations were given – so giving and receiving seem to be intimately related neuro-anatomically – indicating that altruism maybe biologically-wired into the brain. But this suggests that although there may be a tendency for altruistic behaviour, its true nature is undermined by the ‘expected reward’ associated with the act.

Tankersley et al. (2007) seem to share a different view that ‘altruistic behaviour may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it’. This is based on the idea that empathetic components may play a role in altruistic behaviours, and that tasks requiring such perceptions lead to the activation of the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC). The study showed that the pSTC allowed sensitive discrimination between personal gain and the gain to others. Although these studies are yet to be fully substantiated, they highlight that biological/genetic predispositions only explain altruistic behaviour to a certain extent, which means other factors, particularly social (in addition to combined effects of genetic and environmental factors) also play a role.

With respect to situational factors, there is some evidence that individuals submit to pressures, which if were otherwise absent, would prompt them to carry out the ‘altruistic’ act. Probably the most common is the ‘bystander effect’, where individuals fail to offer any help to a victim in the presence of others (Meyers 2010), and this may be the result of other bystanders being present, or to prevent the potential ‘censure’ they may receive (Hart & Miethe 2008).

Of course there are also other obvious factors such as risk taking which may correlate with altruism – obviously, such tendencies often overlook the potential ‘costs’, so an individual may be more likely to behave ‘altruistically’. Also, since society and culture do seem to play a role, it would not be outrageous to suggest that in this ‘image-obsessed’ world individuals may be deterred from altruism based on the physical attributes of a victim.

The existence of altruism seems to be such a contradicting concept. Evidence suggests that we may be predisposed to behaving altruistically, but it also suggests that we are accustomed to experiencing reward. Some cases present a motivation that is likely exclusively egoistic, but there are others in which the motivation might be at least in part altruistic. Moreover, there are the social, cultural and behavioural factors which can severely alter the motives of altruistic actions. Consideration of these criteria suggests that conflicting motives coexist within the human repertoire, thus it is only reasonable to suggest that when all these aspects are taken into account, humans can exhibit, at least, partial altruism. True altruism necessitates that motives for altruism should be exclusive of any reward gains, but it seems that, certainly in today’s society and the way in which humans have developed and the current norms of life, this is difficult to establish.

Speculation about the motives underlying acts of ‘altruism’ have not provided satisfactory answers to questions about the existence of altruism and about the role it plays in human life. Answers that go beyond speculation and possibility require further investigation. It may be an option to carry out such investigations on individuals with behavioural disorders (i.e. Asperger’s syndrome) where certain behavioural traits which may underlie altruistic motive are lacking (in this case, empathy). Such tests as the polymorphisms could be linked to neuroimaging studies, and these could be carried out long-term to potentially account for changes in society and/or culture. Through evaluation of research and experiments that draw upon various fields and incorporate a multidisciplinary approach, it may be possible to further elucidate altruistic behaviour and the extent to which it may be influenced by society, culture, and biological or genetic factors.

Cite this article as: Ali Hamidi, "Does true altruism exist among humans?," in Projmed, January 3, 2016,


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