Altruistic Behavior – The Lighter Side of Life

I expected nothing to touch me emotionally in biology. It is not that I did not want to experience a heart touching emotion; I just did not expect examining life under a microscope, or boiling chemicals to see a reaction to trigger an emotional response.  As expected, they did not.  Then I began to research Altruistic Behavior and I found a positively touching side of life that goes beyond the elements, chemical reactions, and cells that make up life, and into what life is actually about.  The idea that compassion is not just from the morals and guidelines we are taught to follow, but also an innate quality that is found in every semi-intelligent being truly touched me.

Altruistic behavior is a difficult thing to define.  According to the information gathered, it is an emotion, or act of compassion for another creature that often has no function involving individual survival.

The countless stories about Altruistic behavior certainly prove its existence, yet it is hard to imagine a world where a dog takes care of a kitten with no mother, or a dolphin nurses a shark pup back to health.  Although those two cases are rare, that is exactly what Altruistic behavior is; it is an emotion that compels one creature to assist another creature in need, often for no reason at all.

A short video that shows Altruistic behavior in Chimpanzees is The Mystery of Love – Animal Love.  This video briefly debates the meaning of love, and if it truly exists or if it is just a series of complex chemical reactions that result in the feeling we call love.  The video, however, makes no final conclusion as to what love is and leaves an open debate as to what love could be.  At the end of the video, Frans de Waal talks of an older chimpanzee affected with arthritis that is unable to climb or move efficiently, and several other chimpanzees help by giving her water, or help her climb.  Such actions to help this older chimp are more explained by the chimps all being in the same group and caring for one another, in order to ensure the well-being of the group.  This example is common in nature and exists between many of the more intelligent life forms and species that live in groups.

There exist many theories which seek to explain the reason for Altruistic behavior, but they differ greatly and one can see how almost any one of them could be correct.  One theory is the “tit for tat” also referred to as the prisoner’s dilemma.  “Tit for tat” explains how two prisoners working together for the others benefit of the other, will actually both receive a reward in the end.  This theory explains Altruistic behavior as doing a good action for another creature in return for a reward.  The tit for tat theory goes on to say that if the return action is not properly completed, a punishment will be given.

A second theory is the Kin-Selection theory.  This theory is based on the idea that closely related creatures will naturally take care of one another.  One can easily see this in humans, as extended families will help care for all of the children in the family.  This theory explains why groups of chimpanzees, extended families, herds, and packs would take care of one another, but does not explain the Altruistic behavior in unrelated beings and species.

A recently established theory to explain the reasons for Altruistic behavior in humans is called selective investment theory.  It states that humans are altruistic by nature and explains why humans invest time and energy into long term relationships that require considerable self-sacrifice. The theory stresses that there is a genetic need for close, long-term relationships and social bonds rather than self-interest.  The theory accounts for almost all altruistic behavior in humans, but is parallel in many ways to the Kin-selection theory.  This is because of the emphasis placed on the importance of close social bonds and may also suggest a genetic bond.  The selective investment theory allows for growth within a society by allowing for more members that are not genetically related, and instead connected by social bonds.

It is so easy to believe that any one of these theories could be correct.  Any single theory I believe could be correct, however, at the same time no theory covers the entirety of what altruistic behavior is.  Each theory is lacking something, such as only including some species and only representing related individuals.  I believe that currently no one theory can completely encompass these types of actions.  The actions that can not be explained through social bonds or being in a community, or doing things only for something in return could very well be an action out of good will.  Just as sea turtles are programmed at birth to waddle in the direction of the moon, and red crabs know to cross over Christmas island in December to mate and lay eggs, I see no reason that a creature can not be genetically programmed to have just a bit of good will.

* The bibliography has been removed and can be obtained from Michael W. Anderson.


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