A few thoughts about altruism

December 5, 2018 • 1:00 pm

When I got my new driver’s license last week, I was asked if I still wanted to be an organ donor (that stipulation is put on the license). I said, “Of course.”  There’s no reason not to be a donor: it doesn’t cost you anything since you’re dead and don’t need the organs (unless you’re the kind of Christian who thinks he needs a heart and corneas to meet Jesus), and it gives you some satisfaction that even after death you can help someone else.

People call that an “altruistic” gesture, but it isn’t, really—it isn’t “cultural”altruism” and it isn’t “biological altruism”.  “Cultural altruism” is simply sacrificing something you want to help someone else, without getting anything of equal value in return for your sacrifice.  Examples are people like volunteer firemen—women are included here, I just don’t know if “firepersons” is a word)—who risk their lives for no pay, and soldiers who fall on grenades to save their fellows. In such cases it’s hard to make an argument that what you get back is equal to losing your life. Another example is Lennie Skutnik, who risked his life in 1982 diving into the Potomac to save the life of a passenger in the water after the Air Florida Flight 90 crash.

But things get a bit dicier with lesser acts of “heroism”. If you tutor illiterate adults to help them learn, as I once did, was that altruistic? After all, I got a great deal of satisfaction from watching people learn to read as adults, so was what I reaped less than what I sowed? How do you know? After all, I get bragging rights (I just bragged), and even if others didn’t know about it, there’s still an internal sense of satisfaction.  Those who donate big sums of money to colleges to build buildings with the donor’s name on them are in the same position: they have lots of dosh and don’t lose much—but they get to see their name on a building, and have everybody refer to that building as “Cowles Hall”. Gestures of generosity are often publicized, so they’re less “unselfish” than you think.

It’s hard to judge most acts as “altruistic” since the currency of action versus personal satisfaction aren’t comparable. One could claim, for instance, that “everyone does what they want, which is more or less a claim that you always reap at least as much as you sow. Nevertheless, you have to admire those who risk their lives, like Skutnik, to help others, for he could have died doing that, and would reap no reward. It is for these reasons that I don’t like to use the word “altruism” as shorthand for “doing something costly”.

Biological altruism is very different, and has to do with genes rather than emotional satisfaction. (People are always mixing up biological and cultural evolution, and mixing up both with kin selection, as I note below.) Biological altruism is a genetically coded behaviors for actions that lower your lifetime reproductive success while enhancing the reproductive success of some other member of your species (or even of another species). If fighting fires had a genetic component, volunteer firemen would be an example of biological altruism, for they lower (on average) their net reproductive success while enhancing that of the people whose lives they save. I doubt, though, whether there’s a genetic component to fighting fires, though there may be for risk-taking.

A better example would be a baboon risking its own life to save the life of a baboon from another troop. Or an individual warning other unrelated individuals that a predator is near, and risking its life by so doing (perhaps giving an “alarm call” focuses the predator’s attention on you). There are alarm calls, but they may incur no reproductive cost (after all, you’ve already seen the predator), or they may help save your relatives more than others, in which case their evolution could be understood by kin selection (see below).

Biologically altruistic behaviors are not expected to evolve under Darwinian natural selection, because the genes promoting them would be eliminated by selection from populations. The only way they can evolve is by group selection—groups with higher proportion of genetic altruists may do better than groups having a lower proportion. And although within each group altruists are selected against, that might be outweighed by the higher proliferation and longer persistence of groups that contain more altruists. If the “group-persistence-and-reproduction” effect is strong enough, it could outweigh selection within groups and increase the proportion of altruists in a species.

But that kind of group selection would have to be strong, and even if it did work, after the altruists come to dominate a species the genes for altruism will continue to be selected out of the species. Altruism is genetically unstable under group selection.

Because of this, we don’t expect to see much true biological altruism in animals. And we don’t: I’m not aware of any examples in which an individual reduces its lifetime reproductive success (“fitness”) to help another individual without gaining a genetic benefit. Even in cases that look like altruism (creches in which mothers suckle young of other individuals), there’s always a potential individual-selection explanation (reciprocity is one: someone may suckle your cubs if you suckle theirs).  The altruism that we see in humans is almost certainly the result of social and moral conditioning rather than of genes encoding “altruistic behaviors.”

What about helping your kids at the expense of what you want to do? Well, that’s not altruism at all, but the result of a form of Darwinian selection: kin selection.  Genes for behaviors that help your kids (nursing, parental care, etc.), so long as they’re not too detrimental to your own future reproduction, will spread in populations through the offspring that are helped. That’s why many animals show parental care, which isn’t a sacrifice in reproduction (though it is in energy!), but an adaptively favored trait.

The take-home lesson: “altruism” in humans isn’t the same thing as biological altruism.

87 thoughts on “A few thoughts about altruism

  1. I’m a bit confused by your statement that “Biologically altruistic behaviors are not expected to evolve under Darwinian natural selection, because the genes promoting them would be eliminated by selection from populations.”

    If the person with biological altruistic behaviours has already reproduced and passed on these genes to their offspring, and if their genes came from both parents, couldn’t these genes evolved? A person with these genes might not encounter situations in which they would need these biologically altruistic behaviours to kick-in, so to speak, so they could pass them on to several of their offspring and their offspring could pass them on to their offspring, and so on.

    Nature is replete with animals that put their lives at risk and even sacrifice their lives in order to protect their young, especially mothers.

    1. I think you’re a bit confused here. If on average altruistic behaviors hurt your own reproduction and don’t compensate by more than enhancing the reproduction of your offspring, on average they will be deleterious. And they’ll eventually be eliminated.
      The reason why animals put their lives at risk to help their young is KIN SELECTION, which I tried to distinguish from altruism. In biological altruism, you aren’t helping your relatives, or help them in a way that still give you a net decrease in inclusive fitness.

      1. Isn’t the point of inclusive fitness (rather than kin selection) that from a genes perspective then selection for copies of itself howsoever they come about (horizontally or vertically) is possible? Hamiltons rule follows axionamtially from Darwinian selection + genes. Fisher once hypothesised that maybe 50% of genes were altruistic–coding for behaviors and morphologies that aided others who bore those same genes by common descent.

    2. The famous “Haldane-ism” (saying attributed to, and probably highly polished by, JBS Haldane) about not sacrificing himself for a brother, but doing fo for THREE brothers or EIGHT cousins, fits here. Halane’s point is to lay bare the discrete summation that explains why the process of kin selection can result in genes that spread through the population.

    3. Altruism in biological parlance refers to any costly individual trait that is disadvantageous to the individual possessing it but advantageous to other individuals of the group (and therefore to the entire group), excluding aid to kin. Favorable conditions seem to exist for the evolution of genetic altruism (e.g., reduced virulence) in some pathogens. Another phenomenon called “reciprocal altruism” exists in which animals learn to exchange favors. This was first proposed by evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers. To learn more, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reciprocal_altruism

  2. When some people talk about a biological basis for “altruism” what they really mean is a general human propensity for “niceness” — one which which is genetically heritable and selected for. Or, perhaps, a genetic tendency towards “being a jerk” would be selected out.

    As I understand the argument, in a group-dwelling species, individuals who can more easily make themselves liked and trusted would be more valued by their tribe than those who snarl and cheat, and over time the reproductive success of the Nice would presumably advance over the Not Nice. Exceptions (the Not Nice commit more rape) might be swamped out by other considerations (the rapist and their extended family are executed by vengeful relatives.) I’ve encountered this view from evolutionists trying to counter the creationist claim that evolution would lead to a no-holds-barred screw-the-other-guy Survival of the Fittest human being. No; “niceness” is one way of being fit.

    And being nice would include altruistic behaviors. So it’s not self-sacrifice per se which is being selected for or against. Self-sacrificing altruism is simply riding along with a larger genetic tendency towards kindness and good will.

    Does that make sense?

    1. Yes, in small group-living species WHOSE INDIVIDUALS CAN RECOGNIZE EACH OTHER (that’s important here), a tit for tat strategy might lead you to be nice to someone. However, to the extent that altruistic behaviors have any genetic component they would tend to be eliminated from the mix. You are positing that there can be, is no, heritability for behaviors that are specifically altruistic. But animals do have heritability for things like kin recognition, and the ability to NOT be altruistic if your kind are not the recipients, so it’s not clear.

      Further, this wouldn’t work in species that don’t live in small groups and don’t have the ability to recognize individuals, for in those cases “being nice” won’t evolve, and indeed, most animals in such situations compete with their conspecifics. In many species, even those that live in groups (as Pinker pointed out), being “nice” might even be maladaptive.

      1. Yes, the human species is probably the best example for ongoing relationships within groups. It’s a rich environment.

        The question I have is this: is “self-sacrificing altruism” (genetically coded behaviors for actions that lower your lifetime reproductive success while enhancing the reproductive success of others)so different from “general self-sacrificing altruism” (genetically coded behaviors for actions which lower your comfort level while enhancing the comfort level of others (ie ‘niceness’) that they’d be carried on different genes? What if it was all packaged up in the same genetic code? Alley Oop’s tendency to do things like giving some of his own precious mastodon to a sick stranger is on the same continuum as his sudden impulse to save that stranger’s life by stepping in front of a charging mastodon. Would it be possible for evolution to pick out and eliminate grand efforts of self-sacrificing altruism which end up being fatal from the genetic mix without also eliminating the more modest general self-sacrificing altruism which just puts the person out, but simultaneously gets them the high group status which would help reproductive success?

        It just seems to me that the difference between the two categories of altruism (one which promotes reproductive success and one which hurts reproductive success) is really just a matter of degree. It’s one category. Genes aren’t set up to make the distinction. And the likelihood of individuals with altruistic tendencies encountering situations where the extreme sacrifice is called for is much lower than situations which prompt nice little sacrifices.

        If so, then biologically altruistic behaviors do evolve. Maybe?

    1. It is surprising how little people care whether their charity is actually effective. This suggests that people feel rewarded by the act of giving itself more than what it accomplishes.

    2. Well-meaning, but does not address the systemic problems that make a lot of the “microtopics” necessary. I regard it as a complement to (for example) international financial institution reform, etc. organizations which have to play “the long game”.

  3. Volunteer firefighters do get something back and that is often a sense of adventure and the feeling that they are engaging in a heroic act. I think that many don’t think that they are actually going to be injured or die as that rarely happens. The same is true for many reserve police officers, who are volunteers. For whatever reason, they could not become paid firefighters or police, but they can for a while live out their fantasy. This is certainly true for many, but not all, such folks and they do provide a service to the community. I base this on having been both a reserve police officer and a volunteer EMT on an ambulance, but my motivation was different as it was a way for me to practice skills that I needed in my regular job, but I would be lying if I said that I did enjoyed the feeling of exhilaration in facing emergency situations and the feeling of accomplishment when the job was done. I know others who would say the same thing.

    1. To be honest, I always paid close attention to firefighter training for the good and sufficient reason that if it were ever going to be needed then my own life would be at immediate and direct risk. That’s marine firefighting, in a context of “you might be really lucky and get some backup in a couple of days”.
      First aid has been much more use practically, and called on far more often. But that’s driven by having killed a guy by getting it wrong when first called upon by circumstances.

      1. Killed a guy? I’m curious of the circumstances if you’re willing. I’m sure every surgeon or ER doc has a few losses they could talk about. But, it’s the intention to persevere and develop a career of service that, I think, is the critical issue.

        1. Well, the short version was – when the guy had a heart attack, the response of the site-owner (who also claimed to have been trained as a nurse in the Air Force) was to run to the pub and get drunk, leaving a choice of a screaming wife, a crying 7-year old and me (a couple of days after my 19th birthday, with only “book learning”) to try to keep the guy alive until an ambulance arrived. I got it wrong.
          Fortunately, on his way to the pub, the site owner had called an ambulance. But it still made for one of the longest three-quarter hours of my life.
          Having someone puke into your mouth is a strong argument for using mouth-to-nose by default.

          1. At least you tried. I would have been happy with that.
            Now-a-days the US Heart Association doesn’t teach breathing. Just compressions, in their CPR courses. I guess they figure most people will be unsuccessful and it’s wasting time. The stimulation of compressions probably is enough to trigger breathing in most cases.

          2. I keep track of the changing practices in my 4-yearly revisiting of the “survival” course.
            The problem is – I knew what I’d done wrong, the minute I had a minute to catch my breath.
            Which is why you drill people. To get the procedure into their head at a level where it is what will come out when shit and fan are coming out of their foxholes for a game of mixed metaphors.

    2. Eventually I’ll be moving to a rural area where firefighting and search-and-rescue are volunteer activities. In general, these are farm/ranch people who deal with a fair number of dangerous things in their everyday lives, and have plenty of self-confidence born of experience. A fire threatens the entire community because it can easily become a wildfire. Search and rescue is important because most people have ranching or recreational reasons to venture off the well-traveled paths, and they’d like S&R to be there for them. So I don’t see these people motivated by any sort of altruism. Intead, it’s more of a willingness to support their own community so that everyone, including themselves, ultimately benefit.

    3. Very few people ever truly think it’s going to happen to *them*.

      And if they did, they might be much more reluctant to volunteer.

      It’s a form of self-deception that actually has beneficial consequences (for the community, that is, not necessarily for the individual concerned).


  4. Altruism is a vague description of actions. Any action can ultimately be defined as something someone 1) wants or 2) has to do or 3) does without thinking. That’s not altruism, that’s either being selfish, coerced, or simply determined even if the action comes with personal sacrifice and improving the general good.

    It’s possible altruism is incompatible with determinism. This does not mean that the outcome of an action is still functionally aligned with what we define as altruistic.

    1. If a person dives into a lake to save a drowning person, then it can be said that they want to save that person, but that doesn’t make their action selfish. It would be selfish if they only did it because they wanted to receive praise for their heroism. But if the only reason they acted was out of concern for the drowning person, then their action is unselfish.

      1. I think there’s a certain component of ‘because I can’. I have the ability to assist this person so I should use it.

        If you want to break down that motivation, it could range anywhere from egoism to true social altruism. But probably, as is usual, it’s a mix of factors.


  5. Good treatment. I’d like to add a few comments.
    First, group selection may work where groups of altruists quickly go extinct when selfish cheater mutations arise, such as one that converts a mild bacterial infection into fatal diseases. Lower virulence by allowing longer life in host individuals will, if the math is right, let pathogen populations composed of altruists infect new host individuals over a longer span of time. We may say groups composed of altruist’s are fitter. If malaria immediately killed its hosts, and did not set them up for mosquito transmission, it would go nowhere.
    Second, much good, seemingly unselfish and superficially altruistic behavior in humans — and perhaps other social animals — is the product of policing. A coward in combat, thinking he is watching out for his own fitness, may be shot in the back or become victim of an unfortunate accident.
    Last, and this is just an opinion, considering that becoming an organ donor costs nothing, not volunteering to be one is akin to spite.

  6. You’re not dead when they take your organs. Maybe “technically” but it’s possible you can still feel pain.

    1. My point stands. You stand to gain nothing by donating your organs because as soon as you do, you’re dead and can gain no benefits. You’re just carping about semantics in a way that’s irrelevant to my claim.

    2. I think it’s extremely unlikely you’ll be feeling any pain when your smashed in a car accident, pronounce dead and they operate to extract a kidney or liver or heart to give to a sick patient. Extremely unlikely.

      1. Oh, you “think” it’s “extremely unlikely” that I’ll be conscious as my vital organs are cut out of my body? Well then, sign me up! /s

        The fact is that there is no way of testing your claim. This is why I’m not an organ donor.

          1. That’s a very good point.

            (I had a heart valve repair. My only (dim and fleeting) memory is of a moment the night after when I felt vague discomfort and thirst with tubes stuck down my throat – but it wasn’t bad. No pain as such.)


          2. On a dead person. Being anesthetized is as close to being dead as you can get while not being dead. And, as it happens, you don’t feel anything during surgery. It is, thus, a close approximation to the “experience” of a dead person having organs harvested.

          3. Mr. James, you write that organ harvesting surgery is done “on a dead person.” That is only an assumption. In fact, since organs decay rapidly after death, organ harvesting surgery is done while the body is in many respects still functioning. Tests are indeed done that medical professionals believe ensure that the brain is dead and that no pain is felt (e.g., they squirt water in the person’s ear and look for a response). However, there is no definitive way to check whether or not these cadavers feel pain while their organs are being harvested.

  7. An oft forgotten act of altruism involved an up and coming star running back on the Kansas City Chiefs. Joe Delaney, despite not knowing how to swim himself, jumped into a lake to rescue two children who were drowning. The kids survived but Delaney didn’t.

  8. I thought maternal / paternal behaviors originated with kin selection but apply to non-kin as well (a la the way even young children will fuss over babies and you see many more women in caregiving professions than men (presumably because they were the primary caregivers for their own children as we evolved)? I remember reading somewhere that the theory on this was that any infant one encountered in a hunter gatherer group was likely to share quite a few of one’s genes and so these caregiving behaviors become more generalized.

    Regarding empathy based altruism, I don’t necessarily understand why that is not biological either, assuming there is some genetic component to empathy and helping behaviors are the natural result. Yes, the recipient does ‘get something’, emotionally, but only because we are wired in a specific way that means we are programmed to ‘get something’ out of such acts. If we found that birds are reinforced with feel-good neurotransmitters when they take the steps that allow them to learn to swim or fly, for example, I think we would still say those swimming and flying behaviors have a genetic component and that a reinforcing response would actually be expected as part of that?

  9. I do/have done two things which some would consider altruistic but are mostly self interest. I give blood six times a year. Up until 25 years ago, I was a casual blood donor – maybe once a year. Then we learned that my mother had hereditary hemochromatosis, aka the Celtic Curse or iron overload disease. We all knew we were getting one of the mutations (C282Y) from my mother. It turns out that some of us also got a different mutation (H63D) from our father. So I am a compound heterozygote. This does not lead to HH but it does lead to elevated iron levels. One doctor told me to give blood at least once a year. Another said to go for four times a year. I do six – which is the most allowed these days. Used to be every eight weeks. It is still every eight weeks but no more than six times in any twelve month period. In addition to the unit of blood (500ml), they also take six test tubes for various and sundry tests. The FDA thought that sixth test tube was too much so they added the six in 12 months restriction. How much of my behavior is self interest and how much is altruistic? My ferritin levels are almost too low these days but I persist in bleeding.

    The other thing I have done is will my body to science. Basically let med students chop me up in anatomy class. In Illinois, it is through the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois.

    The main reason for doing this, from my perspective, is that it is consistent with my beliefs. My life is over, I no longer need my body so who cares what happens to it. Also, why shell out all that money for a funeral. Any altruism involved there?

  10. Seneca used to say ‘helping others is helping yourself’. Social status might be what humans gain with visible altruistic behavior; works even for organ donation.

    In my country they changed from opt-in to opt-out style organ donation; our government counts on human laziness instead of hoping for our altruism, what is far more reliable. Maybe this counts also as effective altruism.

    1. That is a very effective change. It shifts what is ‘normal’ without actually imposing either alternative on those who have definite feelings about it.

      I haven’t indicated donor status, primarily because I think it might upset my wife (and I don’t really want to raise it with her). If, on the other hand, it was the default option, I would have no trouble just ‘going with the flow’ and leaving the ‘Don’t’ box unticked (unless the wife specifically asked me, and I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t).


  11. There may be forms of altruism that are not antithetical to selfishness, especially if altruism is rooted in empathy- the ability to feel other people’s pleasure and pain. Presumably such empathy may be two-way, thus the gratification via congratulations comes with the package.


    Wiktionary has an entry for fireperson, but dictionary.com (mostly cribbed from Random House) does not.

  12. It seems possible to me that altruistic behavior in humans directed at non-kin could represent a sort of misfiring of behavior that was, in fact, favored by kin-selection. If human population structure in the past was such that most individuals encountered were likely to be related, selection for altruistic behavior would not need to involve determining whether or not the individual being helped was a relative. We now reside in a world in which most encounters are with unrelated individuals, but evolution my not have had time to adjust to that reality.

    1. On a related note, I have seen it argued that if some behavior is not preferentially directed toward relative when both related and unrelated individuals are present, it must not have arisen by kin selection. I disagree: it is only necessary that the average population structure is such that individuals in your neighborhood are likely to be relatives.

      1. There is also reciprocal altruism, where one extends favors to non-kin, with the expectation that they will get a favor later on. This is common in humans and in other primates.

        1. Oh, definitely. On the road, the number of people I have towed out of ditches, ‘lent’ gallons of gas to, etc is quite considerable. And, I have to say, vice versa.


          1. Of course, the people I have helped are quite different from the ones who have helped me, naturally. ‘What goes around comes around’, as they say.


  13. I think the point about “cultural altruism” is that the altruistic person is motivated by the good of another person, rather than by their own good. Feeling positive about yourself for acting on behalf of another doesn’t diminish the altruism of the act — it’s appropriate to feel good about helping others. I

  14. I think it’s important when discussing group selection to differentiate between lower- and higher-intelligence animals. I wouldn’t expect altruism to evolve in rabbits, but our ancestors were able to observe and remember traits displayed by their fellow tribespeople, discuss them among themselves, and either punish or reward the member in question. The group would tend to select for altruism as a result. A genetic tendency towards empathy would tend to spread… and even though this tendency evolved amongst people who were closely related, I think traits like empathy (indeed, any personality traits) are so complex that they tend to universalize. We have a genetic tendency to want to help others without stopping to calculate how closely we might be related.
    Actually I think Sastra said everything I said with much more eloquence. So I’ll just finish by repeating that our ancestors at one point started self-selecting for group traits instead of just letting group selection happen (or not happen).

    1. Yes, I’m curious as to how that is delineated in biology-speak, if, hypothetically, you have a ‘spandrel’ that then begins its own Darwinian process (what that is called, I mean – cultural selection? Biological?). As I know Jerry is very much not a blank-slater, my assumption is that he does not see social and moral conditioning as being *entirely social constructs invented arbitrarily, but rather, a formalized version of instincts that *are genetic (We very likely are born with moral intuitions, as there is the well-known video of a monkey hurling a cucumber slice at an experimenter when his counterpart gets a grape for doing the same amount of work, indicating that he either values fairness or is has been hanging out with Commie monkeys. Or modeling that has shown, I believe, that groups of organisms that work together are highly unstable unless they develop a mechanism to punish ‘cheaters’, i.e., our likely inborn intuitions about justice and fairness.) It seems possible that behaviors that are altruistic in terms of survival value (subjective states are another, ethereal story,) could have come from a variety of other genetic sources. The opposite of being seen as a ‘cheater’ is being viewed as a ‘giver’, for example, so in some ways altruism could have been a built-in buffer to move individual organisms away from ‘cheater’ status (I think this aligns with what I and many of my female friends report – an inexplicable but overwhelming sense of guilt at just saying ‘no’ to people and requests – for favors, sign-ups, helping out, etc. There are long screeds written to teach people this skill, often to no avail.) Altruism based on empathy and empathy as essential component in theory of mind and thus communication (which would have had obvious value, I would think,) is another possible scenario. It seems to me that whether or not we are altruistic, we are clearly *prosocial creatures genetically, which raises many of the same questions.

  15. Within animals, there are plenty of cases of social animals caring for the young of another species. Female d*gs suckling kittens, that sort of thing. That is milk that could go toward their young. What about that?

    1. Perhaps simply mistaken and misdirected maternal instinct? I doubt the dog could conceptualize that it nursing another species, a cat no less. So by her instinct she acted as if she was promoting her own genes, not unlike the birds that feed the cuckoos in their nests.

      1. Yes, I agree. As I describe it, behaviors that are strongly selected by natural selection (nurturing of kin via kin selection) are induced by hormonal states and sensory cues that trigger the behaviors. These cannot just be turned off.

  16. Imagine if an altruistic trait was like sickle cell disease. Possessing one copy of the altruism allele might be advantageous as you would be mostly selfish yourself but would benefit from having true altruists in your family or pack. The homozygous “true” altruists might suffer, but the allele would thrive due to heterozygous advantage. In this way the allele is exploiting itself in an “extended phenotype” situation. Anything to this idea?

  17. “Nevertheless, you have to admire those who risk their lives, like Skutnik, to help others, for he could have died doing that, and would reap no reward.”

    Could Skutnik have done otherwise? If not, why does he deserve admiration? If, in another possible world, he’d declined to act, would he deserve condemnation?

      1. That’s exactly what I find perplexing about that position. How could incentives or disincentives work if we aren’t capable of doing anything other than what we actually do? Incentives imply free will.

        1. Not contra-causal free will. That would be magic. But compatibalist free will, perhaps. Compatibalist free will requires only that we know that people have the ability to anticipate the consequences of their actions. So we reward those who do good and punish those who do bad because we know people will take those consequences into account when making decisions. And by making decisions, I mean a deterministic process, of course.

  18. Introspecting my own charitable drives, I find I give mainly to make me “feel good.” But why should I feel good? Most of my giving is for those who seem helpless, like distressed animals and disadvantaged kids. So I am guessing this is redirected parental instinct. I rarely give to other causes, like the arts, unless I “get something”, perhaps entree to a group I want to be in, or better concert seats. Of course, that is not altruism.

  19. It’s cultural altruism (aka simply “altruism”) to tutor adults if you feel good about helping people. Someone who didn’t care about helping others wouldn’t get that benefit. That benefit therefore doesn’t count under the selfish benefits column in the accounting.

    Now, if you tutored people strictly to better your reputation, that would be another story.

  20. ‘Those who donate big sums of money to colleges to build buildings with the donor’s name on them are in the same position: they have lots of dosh and don’t lose much—but they get to see their name on a building, and have everybody refer to that building as “Cowles Hall”.’

    And then there are donors who prefer to give anonymously. Not that I’ve ever donated a building, you understand 😉 But if I were in that position, I think I’d prefer not to have my name splashed across it. Also, because I think [Name of donor] Building often sounds dumb, as does [Name of local politician] Bridge.


    1. I think there are many reasons for people to benefit others. Perhaps the biggest is that people feel a strong sense of empathy based on their own experience – where they were nurtured or given support – or from stories within the culture having to do with support for those in need. We can all be our own heroes at some opportune moment. This has a strong impact on people at an emotional level and they want to self identify as donors and givers and helpers. Whatever the biological sources are for these feelings, they are amplified by culture and provide a significant motivation for average people everywhere to give of themselves whenever they feel compelled by circumstances.

    2. Could you donate to have the entrance road to such a building built, and have it named after you? Then it would be the Infinite Improbability Drive.


      1. Brilliant! 🙂

        That is, of course, where I picked my ‘nym from. Too much reading Adams at the time.


    3. But then, donating a building anonymously, you’d be SO RICH that you’d have nothing to gain by flaunting it, content in your smug self satisfaction. 🙂

      You can’t win at this altruism game. Motives will be questioned.

  21. Prof. Coyne, your distinction between cultural and biological altruism seems somewhat at odds with your later post on male and female brains. There, you point out that differences in behavior must necessarily be driven by differences in brains, and at least some of these differences in brains must result from biologically evolved genetic differences. Doesn’t the same reasoning apply to variation in the behaviors that result in altruism?

  22. Maybe the adaptively favored trait behind everything (including human heroism and altruism) is the avoidance of suffering. To fall on a grenade to save your fellows doesn’t make sense if personal satisfaction is the goal, but it does if avoidance of suffering is (you don’t want to live the rest of your life thinking that you are a coward).

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