Sunday, 24 August 2008

Not Only Humans But Animals, Even Bacteria are Altruistic

There is not a single human society, past or present, where altruism of some kind is not considered a superior characteristic. 

Altruistic behaviour is seen to arise out of soulful maturity. Sacrificing oneself for the greater good of many is the ultimate act of self-negation and the true mark of a hero.

What is the Definition of Altruism in Everyday Language?
Regard for others, both natural and moral; devotion to the interests of others; brotherly kindness; -- opposed to egoism or selfishness. 
Altruism is a divine quality that is considered to distinguish the noble from the base. We humans always like to think that we are the pinnacle of development, created in the image of divinity but is it always so simple?

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When we are ashamed of some kind of behaviour, we label that behaviour as animal. Rather conveniently we forget that we as humans are indeed biped primates belonging to the 
  • Family Hominidae
  • Order Primates
  • Class Mammalia
  • Phylum Chordata
  • and Kingdom Animalia
Of course, we never ask other animals what they think of us humans on this issue of superiority, especially the fact that there is no record of any animal acting stupidly out of deliberate choice as many humans do repeatedly.

Would animals laugh if we told them that only the higher primates of the family Hominidae could practice altruism? Yes they would. Altruism is not uncommon in the animal world. Even the lowly bacteria consistently exhibit altruism.

Definition of Altruism in Evolutionary Biology

The definition of altruism in evolutionary biology is, however, slightly different. In evolutionary biology, an organism is said to behave altruistically when its behaviour benefits other organisms, at a cost to the organism itself. These costs and benefits to the organism are measured in terms of reproductive fitness, or expected number of offspring. 

Thus, by behaving altruistically, an organism reduces the number of offspring it is likely to produce, but boosts the number other organisms are likely to produce. This is a clear trade-off, which improves the well-being of the group. 

Altruism in Salmonella Bacteria and Animals

Salmonella bacteria sacrifice themselves for the greater good. As they enter the digestive tract, it’s a hostile world as other bacteria have dug themselves into good strategic positions. So the salmonella ‘select’ one in six microbes during cell division as an advance group. As they dig into the intestinal tissues, they cause the human defence system to inundate the tract. This clears away all the other bacteria, when colonization by other salmonella can begin. To paraphrase the great Winston Churchill, “Never in the field of intestinal conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Huani feeds the tiger triplets and her own puppy at the Paomaling Zoo in Jinan, China. Photograph: Lu Chuanquan/Xinhua/AP
Dolphins regularly support sick or injured animals by swimming under them and pushing them to surface so that they can breathe. One extreme example of altruism is the Stegodyphus spider, which has a unique system of matriphagy, when the offspring actually eats the mother. Felix Warneken and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology present experimental evidence that Chimpanzees often help other species, even humans without any reward.

Neanderthal Man Became Extinct Due to a Lack of Altruistic Behaviour

James Shreeve, in his book The Neanderthal Enigma: Solving the Mystery of Modern Human Origins. New York: William Morrow & Co, 1995, presents his theory of why the Neanderthal man became extinct. 
Shreeve says that Neanderthal man was an exaggerated case of Me, Myself and I. In time, Neanderthal man became extinct because of an inability to produce altruistic and cooperative behaviour towards other Neanderthals, especially the females and children of their own clans. 

The ability to share experience, artefacts and values with others created culture in the weaker Cro-Magnon man helped them survive and evolve.

Criticism of Altruism

Critics of altruism in nature (e.g. Trivers 1971) say that it is only delayed self-gratification as we are altruistic in the expectation of future returns of favours. 

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Even when it is disadvantageous to us and entails sacrifices, it is ultimately genic self-interest, they say. 

What People Say About Altruism

Altruism is a vision of a higher call for some:
Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. - Martin Luther King, Jr. 
Others are pragmatic and want to have the cake and eat it too. 
I would rather be kept alive in the efficient if cold altruism of a large hospital than expire in a gush of warm sympathy in a small one. - Aneurin Bevan 
Then there are hardliners: 
If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject. - Ayn Rand
And realists: 
Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. - Richard Dawkins 
  • Dawkins, R., 1976, The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Fletcher, J. A. and Doebeli, M., 2006, ‘How Altruism Evolves: Assortment and Synergy’, Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 19: 1389-1393
  • Hammerstein, P., 2003, ‘Why is Reciprocity so Rare in Social Animals? A Protestant Appeal’, in P. Hammerstein (ed.) Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation, Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
  • Trivers, R.L., 1971. ‘The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism’, Quarterly Review of Biology, 46: 35-57

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Why are Seats Empty at Beijing?

The opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics was a spectacular show. The entire choreography was flawlessly executed, with each minute detail falling in place to showcase China’s might and prowess to the world. 

But people could notice an embarrassing factor even at the most spectacular show on the planet – empty seats.

Officially all the events are sold out. According to a BBC reportWang Wei, a senior official with the Beijing organising committee (Bocog), said empty seats was not a problem unique to Beijing and other Olympics had experienced similar problems. This spokesman blamed the weather for being too hot and too humid and then too rainy. 

The Chinese authorities have tried to address the problem of empty stands by hiring volunteers, dressing them up in yellow and filling the empty seats to act as cheerleaders. They have been given instructions to cheer for both teams to improve the atmosphere in the stands.

Some people claim that many of the corporate seats are empty because the corporate tickets were handed out only the day before to prevent blackmarketeering and busy executives can’t make it to the events at such short notice.

Is there some other explanation to why the stands are empty? Do the local Chinese see the sports events as strange and Western? 

Do the Chinese people find the idea of paying hefty prices for attending mass sports events too strange? Are the tickets too expensive?

Beijing Olympic Tickets Terribly Expensive

For example, tickets for softball started at $100 for pool play and go up to $400+ for the gold medal game. In Athens, the same tickets were going for about $10 and $40 respectively. The tickets for the Men’s single tennis finals in 2008, are priced at 545€ plus 29€ for delivery charges. According the People's Daily in China, the average monthly income in Beijing is 227 US dollars. Domestic sports fans would definitely find the ticket prices rather expensive.

The Sydney 2000 Olympic record for ticket sales was 91% of available tickets breaking the previous record for ticket sales of more than 82% set in Atlanta.

Rumours of terrorism drove crowds away from the preliminary competitions of the games in Athens, but attendance picked up soon.

What about the foreign sport fans in Beijing? Is it too difficult and expensive getting visas, finding accommodation, getting tickets or are spectators choosing to watch events on TV from the comfort of their homes?

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Is Backpacking Out and Flashpacking In?

Do you like the idea of adventure and freedom in backpacking but prefer security, style, and luxury?

Are you in your thirties or forties and have more than enough money to spend while travelling? 
And you really can't be without your favourite iPad or similar device.

If you answered 'yes' to both questions, you are something other than a backpacker.

How Do You Know You Are a Flashpacker?

Here's a simple flashpacker test:
  • Would you rather spend a few hundred dollars on flights rather than emerge half-dead from 18-hour bus trips?

If you answered yes, then you are a Flashpacker!

Most people don’t have a clue what flashpacker means. The term flashpacker comes from the same roots as backpacker – flash (ostentatious) + (back) packer. Flashpackers can be called business class backpackers but there are some big differences.

Since the sixties, backpackers have been travelling light and living frugally. 
  • Backpackers don’t carry iPods, PDAs, laptops or expensive digital equipment. 
  • Backpackers like to travel with no fixed schedules on long trips, and be independent while travelling. 
  • Backpacking evolved out of the hippie movement in the West. 
  • People in many traditional non-Western countries often regarded backpackers to be more interested in chilling-out, using recreational drugs and exhibiting looser sexual morals than actually learning about the places and cultures they were in.

Would you spot a flashpacker on an 18-hour bus ride to save fifty dollars? No, ‘it is too backpacker’ they would say and fly. For a flashpacker, style is more important.

Instead of ‘slumming it out’ in budget accommodation, flashpackers spend nights in comfortable hotel rooms and dine in upscale restaurants. Flashpackers always choose to remain connected with their friends or contacts through digital devices they carry with them. 

One of the main criticism against backpacking is that though they seek the 'authentic' experience, in reality they hang around in places frequented by other backpackers and are in contact with them rather than even talk to locals. 

Many people criticize that hardcore flashpackers just play with their electronic gadgets (iPhones, iPads and iPods etc.) in different parts of the world, and have no time, energy, or inclination to actually make contact with anyone outside their digital communities. 
Critics are envious as they can’t afford what we can”, say the flashpackers and move on.
A synonym of flashpacking is poshpacking. 

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More about flashpackers here.