Altruism—Are We Wired to Be Helpful?

Altruism is an intriguing human quality that is studied by psychologists, biologists, economists and by practitioners of many other disciplines. Altruism is the spirit that pushes people to help others during disasters, to help the homeless child on the street, to raise their voices against injustices and to stand by the oppressed. Altruistic actions need not be very big or involving extensive expense or effort. Altruism can be as simple as anonymously donating for charity or buying a meal for a homeless person. It covers a variety of actions that are carried out for the well-being of the other without any consideration of the self or without any expectation of returns.

The essence of altruism is that the person engaging in the action does it with the intention of helping the other. Therefore, there is a significant outlay of money, effort and/or time in an altruistic action, diverting them from actions that would have benefited the self. Another important aspect is that an action can be considered altruistic only when there is no gain for the individual. For instance, a student volunteers to help the homeless through an NGO. This action cannot be considered altruistic if the student does it for the sake of the volunteering certificate. Therefore, these two conditions are essential to be fulfilled for behaviour to qualify as altruistic.

Altruistic behaviour is considered to be one of the qualities that make us human. This action cannot be possible if we are unable to empathise or even sympathise with the person in need. Many of us have come to view altruism as an essential human trait. However, the animal world is replete with instances of altruism among animals. There have been various instances where altruism was observed. There is a recorded instance of a dolphin helping two beached whales to go back to the deep seas. There may be selfish reasons behind ways in which animals help each other but mostly these acts are instances where the animal receiving help is often seen as non-threatening. Similarly, some species of monkeys give warning signs to protect their fellow monkeys against predators which eventually would attract attention to the warning monkey.

These acts of altruism have been a puzzle for evolutionary biologists. From the evolutionary point of view, the principle of the survival of the fittest is considered as the prime motivate for the behaviour of organisms. Being altruistic does not improve the chances of their survival. It rather impedes their chances of survival and the probability of the survival of their genes in the future gene pool. All organisms are motivated to increase the chances of passing their genes to the future gene pool. Therefore, helping individuals of the same species and that of other species would negatively affect their survival and that of the genes in the future gene pool.

From an economic point of view, this behaviour is rather confusing. The dominant paradigm in economics is the neo-classical assumption of self-interest and rationality. Human action in the economic realm and elsewhere is motivated by the need to maximise their returns from any action. Altruism would lead to an outlay of time, money and/or effort which does not in any way bring a return. Both from an evolutionary perspective and from an economic perspective, altruistic behaviour does not make sense. Now the question is that why are we altruistic?

A rather interesting answer to this question has been put forth by Sarah Hrdy in her book Mothers and Others. She argues that this behaviour came to us from the apes. Apes as a species practised cooperative breeding in which the offspring was raised by a set of alloparents which included the extended family like cousins, grandparents, aunts and so on. This enabled the offspring to stay with their parents for a longer period of time which in turn resulted in larger brain sizes in the species over time. This amplified cognitive capability is associated with the human ability to understand the emotions and thoughts of other people and to empathise with them.

The role that evolution has to play in our life is rather astonishing. Even a minuscule aspect of what makes us human has developed over the years across various species. Our closeness to apes than to other primates like the orangutans has determined various aspects of our self as it has come to exist today. From enlarged brains to acts of altruism, they all have long stories about how they have evolved and come about to exist. And similarly, the actions that we as a species continue to practice for ages would come to define how a man would be in the future or the superhuman that would evolve out of us.

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