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

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