Universal Ethics > Research > Altruism

Evolutionary Advantage of Altruism

The world is filled with a variety of species, varing from very simple single-celled creatures to complex animals made of millions of cells in complex structures with increasing levels of capabilities for learning. In the more complex animals, we also see an increasing capability for coordinated, or cooperative behavior.

The greatest capabilities are found in humans, which are distinguished by their capacity to learn and cooperate. Without those abilities, humans would no doubt become extinct, because without they claws and fangs of more powerful individual preditors, humans would be easy prey. But instead, even primitive humans with the ability to invent tools such as spears could together defend themselves effectively.

The learning and behavior of animals is governed by their motives, and thus we also see an evolution in the motivational characteristics of animals. Animals who have empathy among themselves tend to have greater solidarity in their groups, and to help one another even at some cost or risk to individuals. This is known as altruism.

Historically we have not thought of wild animals as being altruistic, and it is true that often there is cruelty in their nature. A well known example is that of the male bear, which may kill his own cub if the mother is unable to protect the cub. This is obviously not an advantage for the survival of offspring, but mothers are able to protect the cubs in most cases so the species survies notwithstanding.

What is not so well known until recently, is the extent to which altruism has developed in many wild animals. It appears that there is an evoluationary advantage to it, and that some species have developed various forms of altruism.

We can demonstrate the advantage of altruism in computer simulations but we can also see it in the real world. Check out these links:

CBC - Rat rescues other rat in distress See a video showing a rat rescuing another rat - part of an experiment that demonstrates altruism among rats.
Scientific American - Jailbreak Rat Selfless Rodents Spring Their Pals and Share Their Sweets
ScienceMag.org - brain behavior Human altruism traces back to the origins of humanity.
International Business Times - animal altruism Raised By Wolves (Or Lions, Or Dolphins): Stories of Animal Altruism

Here is more information, about means of satisfying one's altruistic desires:

www.altruists.org useful information about people's motive to help each other (empathy and kindness)

centreforeffectivealtruism.org information about maximizing the benefit of your charitable donations.


Do you have any comments or any web sites to recommend on this topic? If so, click below.

Return to Universal Ethics home page