Altruism in Action

All primates live in groups. Just like fish swim in a school and buffalo roam in a herd, primates live in communities. An interesting fact about primate life is that, to a greater or lesser degree, they tend to cooperate with one another. From an evolutionary perspective this is quite interesting. If success is defined in evolutionary terms as having offspring and raising them to maturity, then why should an individual be interested in helping their neighbor? After all, evolution would suggest that an individual and their neighbor are in competition with one another!

And yet we can observe, time and again, that not only will primates help each other but they will actually put themselves at risk in order to come to the aid of another. This kind of compassionate behavior is termed altruism. Genetically altruism makes a lot of sense when this aid is directed at an individual in one’s kin group. For example, it makes sense that a parent would put themselves at risk in order to protect their child because the child is the carrier of the parent’s genes and doing so is clearly beneficial to the parent’s fitness.

But primates don’t limit themselves to just helping members of their family. Primates will come to the aid of stranger, someone with whom they share no genetic relationship. This is true for humans as it is for monkeys and apes. Why? How could this have evolved?

Of course humans are complex beings and there can be many factors motivating our actions when we try to help a stranger. But consider the problem from an evolutionary perspective. How might natural selection have favored the trait of selflessness or self-sacrificing behavior in such social animals as primates?

Leave your comments below…


About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
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10 Responses to Altruism in Action

  1. Joanna Wolford says:

    I think that having the “will” to help others is what sets us apart from other animals but then again I had watched something on T.V. a while ago about a lioness protecting a baby antelope. She would protect it and other times she was so hungry, she was tempted to eat it. It was almost like she fought between reason and instincts.

  2. Richard C says:

    Interesting question. The extreme is in war where, at times, many thousands knowingly march to near certain death for what is, objectively, a futile result. In some of the longest and nastiest wars the populations are genetically similar (think Sunnis and Shiites or Irish and English). In, for instance, the American Civil War, brothers often fought on opposite sides.
    I can somehow understand that is better for the overall species or group if we learned, in the distant, past to cooperate or even sacrifice for each other in order to escape the tiger. I have trouble understanding how war has been such distinctive characteristic of human history.

  3. Erika Primdahl says:

    Matt said something two classes ago that this reminded me of for SOME reason. We talked about how humans are the only creatures that know were alive. I’m not sure i disagree. True- dogs cant look at their tails and think ‘wow- i am a living thing. My tail is wagging because of nerve impulses from my brain, blah blah blah.’ BUT we talked in my literature class last semester, after watching Blade Runner with Harrison Ford, about the fight to survive and that when something knows its living it will FIGHT to survive- or it fights to survive because in some sense it knows its living. Just thought id throw my 2 cents in here. This story got me thinking about that comment for some reason.

  4. First of all this is an extremely impressive video, and a very interesting perspective on human thought and evolution. I think of the possibility that a “fit” being is under distress by an external force that cannot be controlled and his fellow beings help him out of the situation thus saving his life. By saving his life, this fit creature is able to pass on his genes that may have been lost. I’d also like to mention the video of the New York man that was hit by a car, or something of that nature. After being hit, the video shows all of the people on the street ignoring him and carry on with their lives without even helping the man. Human beings are conscious and inconsistent.

  5. Mercedes Chapa says:

    I have to agree with Mr. Key in that human beings are conscious and inconsistent. The video is a perfect depiction of that theory. I find it fascinating that human beings and primates share many of the same genes, yet one thing that does seperate us is the “will” we have in doing things. For humans our actions are not all based on instinct, we have will to decide wether we want to aid or help another individual. I feel that everyone has a certain amount of selfishness and selflessness, yet its the person in us that decides wether we have great concern of the other persons well being in that situation. Some people might feel altruism and a loyalty to others wether they have strangers or not, while on the contrary others might not because they feel no reward of benefit would come from their aid; that is where selfishness comes into play.

  6. Tyrell says:

    Although the people did help, i noticed that they took precation. i think this would be an accurate response of strangers in equivalent situains. im not sure that if the risk were greater or the chances of personal harm were definite, that people would be so quick to act, for example if those people knew that that car was going to blow up in exactly 15 seconds i bet half would have helped, or if that man was completely on fire i doubt anyone of them would sacrafice the flesh on there hands to save his life. this kind of reminds me of Saw… people are faced with the opportunity to save a life in exchange for non- life threatening pain. I think since its a struggle metally to do things so selfless shows inate responses of survival of the fittest. natural selection might have chosen primates because in a sense they have a higher respect for life and they dont take for granted the next primates life. as humans we are so concerned with the future we dont have time for the present, this could cloud the value that we have for life in general. so with a lower value for our personal lives, makes the life of a stranger that much less valuble.

  7. Sarah L. Wright says:

    I completely agree that this “compassion” and ability to feel empathy for others separate humans from other animals. I also think that based on how we were raised and/or our personal morals affects how you react in a situation where someone’s life is in danger. This quality and moral code is another characteristic humans have that other animals do not have. Some people would not hesitate an instant to throw their own life into danger for another, others may hesitate because they are afraid of failing to save the life of another, or possibly they are just too concerned for their own life. Extreme differences in personality and ethical decision making is a huge difference between us and other animals and have obviously led our species to where we are today.

  8. Ashlyn Piland says:

    The idea of helping you offspring in times of need makes perfect sense, your there provider and should be there to protect them. As a parent you want you child to live, grow and eventually produce offspring of there own. Also, within the community strangers do come together and protect each other. In movies such as this, its almost in possible to sit back and watch a innocent victim under a car engulfed in flames. Your natural instinct is to help, whether its calling 911 or coming together as a community and physically lifting the car. My point being, treat others the way you wish to be treated. Give you assistance and guidance and hope for the same in return.

  9. I would have to agree with Sarah. While other species are concerned with simply surviving, we, as humans, are often more concerned with living up to the standards of ‘a good person.’ Morals are learned from our environment, not born with us. While compassion and empathy are traits most people undeniably exhibit, there ARE some people that lack them. Animals are in constant competition with one another because their survival often depends on those around them. Humans are competitive beings, but not in the way that our survival can be determined by others– rather, we compete for success in life.
    Helping a stranger is not usually a selfless act. Many people help others because of the gratification they receive after doing a ‘good deed.’ Acts of altruism, however, can be different. Like this video, there wasn’t much time for reaction by the people surrounding. They had to decide almost immediately to help this dying man from beneath that car and that most likely left little room for selfish reflection. This is a case of pure and natural compassion. Like someone mentioned in class, we would expect others to come to our rescue if we were in their situation and therefore it is a natural reaction that we should help them when in need.
    There is a show called “What Would You Do?” on ABC that basically creates a public scenario where wrong-doing takes place, and the goal is to see who around would step in and help. It’s amazing to see how few people actually choose to do the right thing when given the opportunity, but it is also amazing to see those who do.
    Human kind is pretty fascinating. Check it out

  10. James lee says:

    I think idea of ‘helping’ can I think idea of ‘helping’ can be a risk taking. When a person sees the youtube video above, they will probably say, “It’s not a big deal. I be the same position as the people in the video to help injured people.” However, how will a person react if this situation happens directly? That person will probably think twice or more to help the injured person. Or action will take if some other person reacts first. Person might be scared of getting involved, risk, danger, or complication. I think this has same perspective as evolutionary view. When this danger or helping situation is conducted, people probably didn’t know how to react about it. People will actually jump in and join helping when one person reacts to it first. People need reaction and motivation to move the whole crowd to help.

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