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?
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