Is Human Nature Fundamentally Altruistic Essay

Is Human Nature Fundamentally Altruistic

(2300 Words)

In a study referred by Briggs (2006) in a news story, altruism may have evolved six million years ago in the common ancestor of chimps and humans. Historical documentations hold the veracity of altruism in nature. Altruism can simply mean as thinking of others first. In humans, it is tantamount to caring, compassion, and all positive virtues relating to extending help to others. Animals, on the other hand, show this trait on how they relate with the same species or even other types. Understanding altruism in human as well as in animals is important so as to know whether or not it is a gift or a curse and why such behavior occurs. The Centre National De La Recherche Scientifique (2006) reports that animals in their nature, are observed to be cooperative. Humans, as the highest form of animals, are not exempted with this observation. Altruism in animals is a behavior that illustrates “helping another animal, at the expense of the helper’s well-being.” The basic principle of altruism states that “general altruists only help family members and in this way the behavior contributes indirectly to the transmission of a part of their genes (selection of the immediate family).” Animals and humans alike are considerably altruist considering this basic principle.  The paper will be discussing the comparisons and similarities of altruism in animals and altruism in humans.


The idea of altruism is “the desire to help” (Trotter, 1979) or “charity, do-gooding, philanthropy” (Holt, 2008). According to Okasha (2003), “Altruistic behavior is common throughout the animal kingdom, particularly in species with complex social structures”. Altruism is a relationship between a beneficiary and a sacrificer. Altruism in nature, or altruism in animals, is differentiated from humans in many ways including the way it occurs, the conditions, and the expectations.


According to Holt (2008), humans became altruists because of four (4) identified reasons. The reasons he mentioned includes kinship selection, reciprocal altruism, the promising look of having a reputation for generosity, and for ostentatious giving. These reasons are also illuminated on the case of animals for the purpose of comparison.


The first reason explains that people are naturally altruist if it includes two (2) or more members of his/her family as well as the social circle where he/she affiliates his/her self. A person becomes an altruist if someone close to his/her needs help. It is simply rooted on kinship basis. This first reason is not far different in the animal kingdom. Simple animal scenes like that of “a ground squirrel, spotting a hunting hawk, stands tall and gives a shrill alarm call, potentially drawing the hawk’s attention to itself; a lioness allows cubs that are not her own to suckle alongside her cubs; a honeybee comes to the defense of its hive by stinging an encroacher, an act which proves fatal to the bee” (Andrew 2008) shows the idea of kinship selection.


Then, the second reason is likened to an action-reaction process or what-you-give-is-what-you-receive mentality. The idea of reciprocation rules this identified reason for being an altruist. A person will do good things to someone who does him/her good things too, and vice versa. In animals, this can also be seen as similar to the scenes mentioned above. More often than not, animals – like humans – reciprocate the good deeds of the same animals, for example the honeybees, lioness, and ground squirrels. What are very difficult to describe in terms of reciprocity are animals that are not related. An example presented by Andrews (2008) is the unrelated male olive baboons that are native in the African continent. They create a collaboration to steal a sexually receptive female from a superior male considered as competitor. This happens when one harasses the dominant male while the other solicits and mates with the female. On other occasions, these two allies may switch roles and benefits each other by the association they make. Human beings are also prone on this scenario but not on the sexual perspective rather on survival.


The third reason is the promising look of having a reputation for generosity. The image of being an altruist or a generous person motivates people to be selfless regardless of their current reputations or identity. Any acts of altruism can change bad reputations. In the animal kingdom, generosity is also evident among animals of the same species. A lioness that lets other cubs to suckle alongside her cubs is an act of generosity. In human beings, the ability to give help to people who are in dire needs is the simplest manifestation.


Lastly, the reason for ostentatious giving or “Potlatch effect” is directed into competitive objective which is considered as the most disappointing reason for altruism. As written by Holt, the proponents of this belief adhered that “…our genes have endowed us with genuinely altruistic instinct.” However, Holt presented two (2) other similarly objective reasons, these are: Thomas Nagel’s observation that altruism is rooted in “the conception of oneself as merely a person among others equally real” and his personal reason that “taking steps to relieve the sufferings of others is, in this way of thinking, as valid my reason for taking steps to avert my own future suffering. The reason similarly mirrored on Nagel’s observation as well as Holt’s personal reason are said to be based on self-identity – who we are and what sorts of being are we. It is contended that such reasons are “not from the vagaries of natural selection.” Among animals, this reason is also palpable. Competition for survival, food, nest sites, and mates, and increased presence of predators, and others are among the known reasons for animals to pretend that they are altruists. They need to coexist with other species. In doing so, they are given the same opportunities provided that it will not go against the benefits of other species.


On Trotter’s related article, the reasons identified reflected the idea of Darwin’s theory of natural selection as adopted by Holt. Other people believe that altruism is dead or no longer exists because “altruistic motives are often looked upon with distrust and suspicion” (Trotter, 1979). Trotter argues that altruism in innate to every person as hypothesized by researchers at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. The findings of the experiments (i.e. Weiss and group of University of Oklahoma and Drs. Darley and Batson of Princeton University) as presented in the article say that “the roots of altruistic behavior are so deep that people but only help others, but find it rewarding as well”. Altruism exists and “a deeply ingrained part of human nature”. As according to Drs. Darley and Batson, it exists and demonstrated only under certain types of circumstances. In the end, all experiments agreed that altruism exists as a human condition.


On the other hand, animal altruism could be an “evolutionarily stable strategy” (Smith, 1982). Strategy is defined such that if all the members of the population adopt it, then no other strategies could invade the population. An example of this would that of male baboons and vervet monkey’s behaviors. The first threaten predators and then alarm the fellow monkeys of the presence of the predators. By doing this, they are attracting the attention and putting their lives in danger (Okasha, 2003). It is also considered that a large collection of well-documented animal behavior on altruism is mainly based in kinship relationships and also evident amongst wider social groups. Kinship and reciprocity are among the most common attributes that pertain to altruism in animals. These attributes are also common among humans. Many research studies particularly those that are focused in evolutionary theory apply social behavior including altruism.


Reciprocal altruism is by far the most shared altruistic act. The Stanford Encyclopedia (2003) explains that for reciprocal altruism to take effect, there is the requirement for individuals whom they have shared a past. The main principle is ‘if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’. In animals, the basic example of reciprocal altruism is among bats, particularly those of vampire bats as mentioned by Holt. A bat who has had enough feeding for the night will share blood with the ones who have not. By doing this they will expect the same behavior from those when they are not able. This act can be seen in chimpanzees as well. They will share food with others who beg for it but sometimes they will do it unwillingly. Another perfect example of this is the case of wolves and wild dogs. They bring meat back to their members who are not present at the hunt. There are other examples like those of ants, birds, and the list goes on.


Comparing animal reciprocal altruism to humans is socially enforced. “For a Hadza hunter to fail to share a large animal with other members of the camp in which he is living is to invite violent retribution…” (Moore, 1984). To maintain social order, there is a need to show goodness in give-and-take instances. Reciprocation maintains relationship among social groups – may it be on animals and humans. Aside from the examples mentioned above, the following are focused on human beings: file sharing on the internet can be considered as a reciprocal altruism in humans; aiding disabled individuals; and other examples and acts of helpfulness. A useless file in your computer may be the one that someone has been searching desperately. Other examples can be aiding persons with wheel chair and baby strollers. Actions such as giving up your seat on the bus, picking up goods on top the supermarket shelf where they cannot reach, or even assisting them in places where there is no any ramp access can be accounted for reciprocal altruism.


Meanwhile, kin selection is basic to animal altruism. Altruists commonly shares with their relatives who are genetically similar. Dogs who often adapt orphaned cats, squirrels, ducks and even tigers are one example of this. Dogs are also the only animal that aid blind people. They ensure the safety. The guide dog is carefully maneuvering around obstacles, through crowds, and across streets. Same attribute can be seen in humans as well. The people are naturally altruistic if two or more family member needs help (Holt, 2008). In some primitive cultures it is mandatory to help out a relative when the occasion calls. There is always a threat to be disowned by the family if it is not done.


There is another altruism behavior can only be observed in humans, since humans are considered as a “social creature”, is the reputation. Jim Holt (2008) argues that any acts of altruism can change bad reputations such as John F. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie who were early monopolists and then the greatest philanthropists of all times afterwards. The recent example for this is Bill Gate’s donation billions of dollars to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Just until 1998 Bill Gates was accused and sued by U.S. Justice Department for illegally opposing competition in order to protect and extend its software monopoly and made a fortune out of it.


Altruism is also a conduct basically intended for increasing fitness. While it is said to be a common behavior to animals and humans, it is a means to sustain survival of species. Altruism is considered as a strategy for maximizing sustainability and survival among a social group and even outside the said group. Humans like animals as altruists provide important benefits for each group in which they belong. While there is instances that altruism is not an advantage to the part of the altruist, an altruist chose to put itself at risk for the benefit to the specie. This is actually the reality beyond altruism. May a person or an animal will benefit or not, the fact of extending help is an act of altruism itself. The absence of any reason to help other people or species is a real altruistic behavior.


In conclusion, it is considered that altruism is natural. Holt mentioned for identified reasons that explicate altruism in people including kinship selection, reciprocal altruism, the promising look of having a reputation for generosity, and for ostentatious giving. These reasons are also illuminated on the case of animals. Trotter similarly supports Holt’s ideas and states that the reasons for altruism is natural, thus it is not dead as proven in many studies. It is identified that kin selection, inclusive condition, and reciprocal altruism are the three most important elements of animal altruism. Human altruism, however, is a basic natural social behavior as manifested and founded in socialization processes or human interactions. For humans, altruism is a necessity for survival, existence and functioning. This is also applied on the case of animals. Animals and humans are similar when it comes to the concept of altruism. More often than not, kinship relationships and reciprocity are the common denominators. The principle of evolution is also an important consideration. It is said that the similarities of humans and animals to care for each other is bounded on the fact that we need each other to survive and thrive. Regardless of selfish interests, humans like animals coexist. Survival means supporting each other especially on the basis of kinship or reciprocation. While human behaviors are considerably higher than animals in terms of their ability to think, “good instincts” are natural. It runs in the biological setup of creation. In animals, altruism is natural. It is not far different to that of human beings.




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