Does Altruism Exist?



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I still have a vivid recollection of the seminar that David Sloan Wilson gave to the Zoology Department at Duke University, where I was a graduate student in the early 1980s. In his typical enthusiastic fashion David gave a great talk about group selection, explaining why it’s an important evolutionary theory for understanding many things that otherwise don’t make sense, such as altruism. Of course, David was fighting a losing battle against the tide of gene-centric theories of evolution that were spearheaded by the likes of G. C. Williams and popularized by Richard Dawkins in his The Selfish Gene.

David lost that battle, and for two decades the gene-centric theory reigned, while adherent of group selection were banished to the wilderness. And then a strange thing happened. The gene-centric paradigm began collapsing under the weight of empirical and theoretical anomalies. We now understand that evolution can occur simultaneously at multiple levels: a trait that is disadvantageous at the individual level may still be favored by natural selection if it’s advantageous at the level of groups.

This is a very important insight, because without it we wouldn’t be able to figure out how such behavioral traits as altruism and cooperation evolved. I have always found unsatisfactory the conclusion reached by Richard Dawkins, that evolution would always destroy altruism, so the only recourse for us was to bravely choose to behave altruistically, despite that.

David Wilson’s ideas and work has been vindicated by the development of evolutionary science in the last two decades, and especially by the rise of the new discipline of Cultural Evolution. I just finished reading the latest of David’s books, Does Altruism Exist?, which was published by the Yale University Press earlier this year (2015). Here are some of the thoughts that were prompted by reading the book.


First, I must acknowledge that I never liked ‘altruism’ as a scientific concept, and what I read in David’s book has reinforced my feelings. As David notes in his book, the word altruism was coined by the French sociologist Auguste Comte in 1851. It’s derived from the Latin alter, which means ‘other.’ In evolutionary science an altruistic act is one that increases the ‘fitness’ (survival and reproduction) of another, or others, at a cost to the altruist (again, measured in the units of fitness: survival and reproduction).


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Much of the controversy about altruism centered on whether altruistic acts are ‘really’ altruistic, or unselfish. For example, when someone helps an elderly woman cross a street safely, the helper sacrifices some time and effort, but gains a feeling of satisfaction of doing good. Is this really altruism? Or take the case of world religions that David discusses in the book. Christians are encouraged to love their neighbors, for which they are rewarded with eternal life in the paradise. Where is the altruism in that?

In other words, the discussions of altruism easily get mired in trying to figure out motivations of the altruists. But, as the Russian proverb goes, “the soul of another is enigma.” A stranger’s heart is a deep well. We can’t read other people’s minds, and we can never know whether Mother Teresa was really an altruist.

In any case, people helping other people is nice, but perhaps it’s not as interesting a problem as the question of cooperation. I work within the conceptual framework of Cultural Evolution, and to me the greatest puzzle that we need to resolve is why groups of people—from small teams to whole societies—cooperate to produce public goods. That’s both a more interesting theoretical problem, and the one that can yield the most practical benefits, when it is solved. Most of the amenities of modern life are a result of cooperation in large-scale human groups.

David’s book has a lot to say on this subject. Probably the most important insight is that cooperation, and group-level functional organization that produces cooperation, cannot be explained by selection within groups. It evolves primarily as a result of selection between groups. In other words, we are back to group selection, which was wrongly rejected back in the 1970s, and now is, thankfully, back. Although now we prefer to call this theory multilevel selection, because our conceptual tools allow us to deal with simultaneous (and opposite) selection pressures acting both at the individual and group levels.

David’s book is not going to end the controversy, but it is a very nice summary of the state of the art from one of the key players in the debate over altruism and cooperation.

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“…we can never know whether Mother Teresa was really an altruist.”

Good point. Does it really matter if Mother Teresa was doing all her good deeds for the sake of the salvation of her soul?


since altruism and self-interest are conceptual polar opposites it’s interesting that we evolutionary scientists don’t question whether self-interest exists or not.

the notion of the “self” is a complex concept that when neuroscientists look into it disintegrates.

For example “scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences reveal that our decisions are made seconds before we become aware of them.” … “Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done,” said study co-author John-Dylan Haynes, a Max Planck Institute neuroscientist.”

So your decision to help the old lady across the road was made up to 7 seconds before you thought you made it.

Benjamin Libet did the most famous reaction experiment. his analysis of participants’ EEGs showed a 300 milliseconds gap between build up of activity in the brain (readiness potential) and the conscious decision to act. he theorised that consciousness is a veto on action.

so what this is telling us is the “I” that is consciousness does not make a decision to be selfish or alturistic.

the “I” merely has a veto on selfish or alturistic acts as and when they are presented to the consciousness.

therefore if you were to help an old lady across the road your action would occur because it was not vetoed by your consciousness. is that altruistic? no because it was going to happen. you merely had the option of selfishly ignoring her plight and getting on your way.

likewise, let’s say you arrived at a cash machine to find that the previous user had left without taking his money. he’s not far down the road so you can catch him and give it to him – or you can pocket the 20 dollars. you don’t choose between the acts. you veto acts that are presented. in this case, the alturistic act would be to veto the act of pocketing the 20 dollars; and then not vetoing the behaviour of running after the man and giving him back his money right away.

the point is that any given individual is always ready to do selfish and altruistic acts. let’s say these are offered to the consciousness about 50% of the time each. can an individual who vetoes the altruistic way 51% time be said to have an identifiable “self”? maybe they are an “alter.” some people don’t have “selfs”.

Juan Alfonso

Sometimes I get mixed up with the meaning of Altruism, specially when strictly defined in terms of fitness. Is Kin altruism really altruistic? I mean, it seems altruistic from the individual perspective but it is selfish from the gene point of view. Doesn´t that mean that kin altruism is indirectly selfish in terms of the individual interests in some way?

And is reciprocal altruism really altruistic? In average it must accrue some fitness benefits so it seems to me like a deferred selfishness more than ULTIMATE altruism.

I know that the Price equation proves that under some circunstances real ultimate altruism can occur but, is this the kind of altruism we see in humans?… As you say human cooperation is related to altruism but it is much more than altruism alone.

I have another doubt: does multilevel selection have into account the groups of groups? What I am trying to say is, are there only three levels of selection or there exists an arbitrary number of levels for selection to occur?

Peter Richerson

Perhaps the best work on the proximal side of altruism is that of Daniel Batson. Batson did a series of experiments in which he tried to rule out increasingly subtle egoistic rewards. His typical setup involved sham fellow participants who were scheduled to receive a painful but not dangerous shock. But the sham participant informs the experimenter that she is very sensitive to shocks. The experimenter then offers the real participant an opportunity to take the shock in her place. Under an empathy treatment especially, many real participants did volunteer. In one experiment, some volunteer participants were allowed to help, but some were not and “saw” the sham participant get “shocked.” In still a third treatment, volunteers did not get to help because another “volunteer” helped first. All participants were questioned afterward about their feeling during the experiment. The participants who felt worst on average were those who saw the person getting “shocked.” The people who felt best were those who volunteered to help, but who didn’t have to help because someone else did. Batson argued that at least some people help out of a sense of duty, not because they are going to give themselves a mental pat on the back for helping. If the later were the case the frustrated helpers should be less happy than those who got to help. You see a lot of this in combat soldiers’ stories. it is a dirty job and they’d sooner someone else do it. But if there is no one else to do it, they’ll do it.

At the same time, I agree with Peter. It is the real costs and benefits of acts that are most important not the proximate motivations. A showoff who thoroughly enjoys helping other for reputation and glory may be taking real risks and producing real benefits for others. Higher level selection may not see any difference between the glory hog and the quiet, grimly dutiful person.

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