Does True Altruism Exist Among Humans

Topics: Altruism, Evolutionary psychology, Evolution Pages: 7 (2405 words) Published: April 25, 2013
Does true altruism exist among humans? Critically discuss with reference to theories of group selection, kin selection and reciprocal altruism.

Altruism has proven over the years to not only be an extremely hard characteristic to explain but to also define. Whether it is from a biological view, which was constantly challenged from Darwin to the present day, or from a psychological stance where we consider peoples’ motives for such behaviour. Either way it remains an elusive topic where evolutionists have tried desperately to fill all holes that might challenge their theory even though there are countless examples of human behaviour that fail to match up with the latest explanations of why this selfless trait still exists. Firstly we will discuss the development of theories followed by the effectiveness it has at integrating into modern day altruistic behaviour.

Group Selection
Wilson and Wilson (2007) define group selection as ‘the evolution of traits based on the differential survival and reproduction of groups’. For altruism to evolve it must contribute positively towards natural selection. Group selection theory came about to resolve the issues that lied with the inconsistency with traditional evolutionary theory - ‘Natural selection in its simplest form favours selfish individual behaviours over altruistic ones: Individuals who invest the most effort into their own reproduction and survival...have the greatest success of passing on their genes’ Price (2011). How then can we explain altruistic behaviour in nature if the trait should have died out a long time ago? Darwin began to answer this in his book Descent of Man ‘A tribe including many members, who...were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection’ Darwin (1871). This led to further debate, surely the altruists within a group would be exploited by those more selfish leading to the decline of the altruist trait. Group selection continued to be vigorously questioned by various publications that arose at that time, and as the theory of natural selection continued to be refined it seemed altruism in its truest form slipped out of the picture and was replaced with an altruism lined with selfish genetic desires. Acts that benefit yourself or your group can be considered selfish; they are carried out to ensure the progression of your group at the expense of others. This dilemma is debated by Steven Pinker who provides his own argument towards altruistic gene progression, he puts forward that altruistic individuals have not evolved to happily sacrifice themselves or act as ‘a human shield’, because a gene that promotes that would never succeed. Instead the evolution is in those who manipulate others to sacrifice their own lives to benefit the group. ‘If one is the unlucky victim of such manipulation...there's no need to call it altruism and search for an evolutionary explanation, any more than we need to explain the "altruism" of a prey animal who benefits a predator by blundering into its sights’ Pinker (2012)’. Dawkins has a similar indirect view towards altruism – but clarifies that when talking about an altruistic gene we are considering the effects and not the motives – therefore ‘a gene for altruism, then, is any gene that, compared with its alleles, causes individuals to benefit other individuals at a cost to themselves’ Dawkins (1979), the example he uses is a pride of lions where one lion has a genetic predisposition to chewing food slower, and so he eats less while the rest of the pack can eat more. ‘The gene for bad teeth would be...a gene for altruism’. If an altruist is without an altruistic motive but inadvertently delivers an altruistic effect, is this altruism? The problem again lies with our definition. Bar-Tal’s definition is perhaps the most comprehensive in my opinion – the behaviour ‘must be performed intentionally’ and...

References: Darwin C (1871) The Descent of Man
Dawkins R (1979) Twelve Misunderstandings of Kin Selection
Hamilton W (1964) The genetical evolution of social behaviour. I. J. Theor. Biol. 7: 1–16.
Israel S, Weisel O, Ebstein R, Bornstein G (2012) Oxytocin, but not vasopressin, increases both parochial and universal altruism. Psychoneuroendocrinology 37:1341-1344
Mauss, M (1967) The Gift
Moore J (1984). The evolution of reciprocal sharing. Ethol. Sociobiol. 5: 5-14.
Pinker S (2012) The False Allure of Group Selection. Retrieved June 18, 2012 from
Price M (2011)
Trivers R (1971) The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Q. Rev. Biol. 46:35-57
Wilson D, Wilson E (2007) Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology
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