Reproductive Success = Survival (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
If evolutionary outcomes in a Darwinian world are described as natural economies, then individual reproduction is the currency of these economies and of natural selection. Given both naturally occurring genetic variation among individuals and a certain environmental dynamic, it follows that some individuals will be better adapted to locally changing environments than others. Such differential adaptation is expressed as a difference in the frequency with which individual genes pass into future generations. This simple scenario fulfills the genetic definition of evolution—change in allele frequencies in natural populations—by explaining environmental influences on these changes. Note that this argument emphasizes, as its central postulate, the importance of individual reproduction rather than simple survival. Survival of the fittest is therefore more properly viewed as the differential propagation of genes.
A challenge to such a scenario is the paradox of altruism. Altruism is defined as any behavior that benefits another at a cost to the altruist. Charles Darwin himself suggested that this problem was a “special difficulty . . . which at first appeared . . . insuperable, and actually fatal to [the] whole theory” of natural selection. The individual who pushes siblings from the track as he himself is killed by the rushing locomotive is an altruist; the colony sentinel that issues an alarm call to her...
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Evidence of Kin Selection (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
One of the best evidences for kin selection is the social structure of certain groups of insects, including the Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps). A unique system of sex determination (haplodiploidy) in which females are diploid and males are haploid predisposes some group members to behave altruistically. In certain bees, for example, the queen is diploid and fertile. Worker bees are female, diploid, and sterile. Drones are male, developed from unfertilized eggs, and haploid. Such a situation makes for unusual patterns of genetic relationship among hive members. In diploid systems the genetic relation between parents and offspring and among offspring is symmetrical. Offspring receive half their genetic complement from their mother and half from the father; sons and daughters are related to each parent by ½ and sibs (siblings) are related to each other by ½. In the haplodiploid system such genetic relationships are asymmetric. Drones are haploid and receive half of the queen’s genome. Workers are diploid and share 100 percent of their paternal genes and, on average, half of their maternal genes with their sisters. Sisters are therefore related to each other by ¾. Because sisters and their brothers share no paternal genes, and on average half of their maternal genes, they are related to drones by only ¼. In this economy it makes sense that workers should act altruistically to assist the queen in the...
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A Test of Predictions (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
One prediction made by the kind of kin selection described above is that, assuming the queen produces male and female offspring in equal proportion, female workers should invest three times the energy in caring for sisters than they do for brothers. Because queens are related to both male and female offspring equally, one would predict that eggs are equally divided between the sexes. Because workers are related to their sisters by ¾ and to their brothers by ¼, one would predict that they should invest three times the energy in care of eggs eventually yielding sisters than they do in the care of eggs eventually yielding brothers. Remarkably, it has been shown that certain worker ants are able to identify and then selectively care for eggs containing sisters. Kin recognition has also been studied in the house mouse, Mus musculus domesticus, and in some cases individuals can distinguish full sibs from half sibs on the basis of their major histocompatibility complexes (glycoproteins important in immune system function). The specific MHC type is fairly unique for each mouse, but related individuals will have similar patterns and share some specific MHC glycoproteins. MHC glycoproteins are found in mouse urine, and individuals can distinguish these molecules by smell. Consistent with the foregoing hypothesis, the degree of female altruism toward the offspring of close relatives was predicted by the degree of relation...
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Maternal Altruism (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
Altruism may be observed in a variety of natural systems in which groups comprise individuals who share a high degree of genetic relatedness. A classic example of this sort occurs with Belding’s ground squirrels. Males tend to disperse from colonies, while females remain to create highly related maternal groups. Members of such maternal groups demonstrate altruistic behaviors such as alarm calling to warn relatives of danger. Although truly altruistic in the sense that alarm callers may incur risk of personal injury or death, they can be reasonably assured of breaking even in this economy as long as their genes live on in the bodies of those they have saved by their actions.
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Reciprocal Altruism (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
It would seem that altruism based on Hamilton’s argument of inclusive fitness would be precluded by human social organization. Scientists have predicted, however, that reciprocal altruism should exist in systems characterized by a high frequency of interaction among member individuals and life spans long enough to allow the recipients of altruistic acts to repay altruists. Note that the theoretical basis for the existence of reciprocal altruism differs from that for kin selection, and that any system in which evidence for reciprocity is found must necessarily include the development of a complex web of sophisticated social interaction. Such systems would be expected to foster traits expressing the panoply of human emotion and the development of certain moral architectures and group cohesion.
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Further Reading (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
Dugatkin, Lee Alan. The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006. Traces the paradox of altruism’s role in a world supposedly ruled by survival of the fittest from the initial theories of Darwin to those of Hamilton and subsequent thinkers.
Freeman, Scott, and Jon C. Herron. “Kin Selection and Social Behavior.” In Evolutionary Analysis. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2001. A well-written and logical analysis of altruistic behavior. Arguments are supported with data and analysis from the primary literature.
Gould, Stephen Jay. “So Cleverly Kind an Animal.” In Ever Since Darwin. New York: W. W. Norton, 1973. An elegantly expressed description of altruism and haplodiploidy in social insects.
Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. Hrdy, a sociobiologist, argues that human cooperation is not rooted in making war but in making babies and caring for children.
Keltner, Dacher. Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009. Examines human emotions within the context of evolution, arguing that positive emotions, such as compassion and gratitude, are at the core of human nature.
Keltner, Dacher, Jason Marsh, and...
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Web Sites of Interest (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
Greater Good Science Center. http://peacecenter.berkeley.edu. In the words of its Web site, the research center is dedicated to the “scientific understanding of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior.”
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu. This site’s article “Biological Altruism” provides a solid overview of the topic, including discussion of altruism and level of selection, kin selection, and reciprocal altruism.
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Altruism (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Altruism is a modern concept attributed to Auguste Comte, a French philosopher who founded the field of sociology in the mid-nineteenth century. The idea of altruism has antecedents in the early modern discussion of benevolence and in such ancient religious notions as Buddhist compassion and Christian agape. An important difference is the explicit focus in altruism on the other as the object of concern, which, in turn, reflects the sharper focus on the self that is characteristic of modern self-consciousness. For Comte, altruism identified the concern for others that he expected would characterize the positive religion of humanity that was destined to replace the false religion of the prescientific, theological, and metaphysical eras. Although Comte would have been disappointed with the extent to which altruism has actually flourished, his concept has become an enduring, if ambiguous, staple of modern Western understanding.
Altruism in biology and sociobiology
The notion of altruism has been accorded a significant role in biology, and especially in the refinements of sociobiology, where the term has a technical meaning that narrows the conventional sense of concern for others in terms of the biological concentration on reproduction. As, from a biological perspective, the point of life is reproduction, altruism acquires the meaning of actions that diminish the reproductive prospects of the altruist, while enhancing those of the recipient of the action. For biology and sociobiology, altruism represents something of an anomaly. Because evolution favors the development of inclusive fitness, altruism should have been selected out of existence. But it is firmly present, in the strictest biological sense, in whole classes of nonreproductive workers like ants and bees. Sociobiology has resolved this anomaly by defining altruism out of existence. What may look like altruism on the behavioral level may turn out to be decidedly selfish on the gene level if the recipient of the altruistic behavior is a relative of the putative altruist and so shares the same genes. The concept of kin altruism thus explains the sacrifice of reproductive prospects for those who share the same genes. Cases where the beneficiary has no identifiable relation are covered by the notion of reciprocal altruism. Here again, what appears to be altruistic behavior is really selfish because it is done with the expectation, genetically speaking, of reciprocal aid that may be required by the altruist in the future. The imperialism of selfish genes thus destroys any semblance of altruistic behavior at the biological level.
Altruism in social science and ethics
The assumption of the primacy of self-interest that dominates sociobiology has been questioned in the social sciences with research into altruism and helping behavior, and yet here too the self-interest assumption remains strong. The favored alternative to a self-interest reading involves a calculative or caring mutuality, for which expectations of altruism may be more detrimental than self-interest. Altruism represents a morality of service and self-sacrifice. Critics point out that such a noble and self-deprecating approach has often been expected of other people; even when its advocates have taken it seriously themselves, it can constitute an individualistic heroism that deflects attention and action from the real possibilities of mutuality inherent in the actual social relations in which people find themselves. Approaches as diverse as the justice procedures of John Rawls (which challenge one to imagine one is designing a society in which one does not know where one will be placed so that one will have to take into account the state of those on the lowest rungs of the social and economic ladders because one might be one of those people) and the alternative stance of feminist care morality (which sees a focus on individual moral action, even, and perhaps especially, the most heroic, as misguided neglect of the social relations of give and take that daily lives actually involve) agree on the superiority of social mutuality over allowance for, much less expectations of, altruism.
Limitations of the concept
Altruism does carry the liabilities of its origins. As a social concept, meant to counterbalance the excesses of self-interest, altruism is finally only intelligible in relation to the self-interest with which it is contrasted; it is concern for others, rather than what is taken to be the natural and virtually inevitable concern for self. Because it carries this legacy, altruism bears the liability of undermining itself through its own deliberateness. Deliberate focus on the other as the object of one's concern may represent an implicit interest in the self as the source of this concern consideration that prompted the nineteenth-century American writer Henry David Thoreau to allow that he would run for his life if he knew that someone was coming to see him with the deliberate intention of doing him good. It is this lack of attention and openness to the other that bothers many contemporary critics of the loss of mutuality in the focus on altruism. That such dangers warrant a dismissal of the whole notion, however, is another matter. Without the moral heroism that altruism entails, reliance on the mutuality of social relations may amount to a frightening leveling down of moral expectations and results. The saints, the philosopher William James contended, are the impregnators of culture, raising it to higher levels through their risking ways of living that hold no obvious benefit for themselves. The philosopher and ethicist Edith Wyschogrod has nominated altruists as the saints of secular culture.
Suspicion of altruism may be a reflection of the secularization of contemporary culture, and the concept itself may be indicative of a lingering religious sensibility in Comte, who still expected a religion of humanity to develop. As such, it suggests that concern for others is finally only feasible through the deliverance from self that is offered by and celebrated in religion. This allows for the indirection that makes the aims of altruism possible, without the short-circuiting of a focus on altruism itself, and hence on the altruist. Of course, this in no way entails that devotees of religion exemplify the reality to which altruism points. Fortunately, religion also offers forgiveness along with the altruistic vision. This could represent the counsel of complacency that advocates of mutuality fear, but it could also represent the heroic initiative and extravagant saintliness that the realism of social mutuality threatens to undermine.
See also ANTHROPOLOGY; BEHAVIORISM; CHRISTIANITY; EVOLUTION; SELF; SELFISH GENE; SOCIOBIOLOGY
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. London: Granada, 1978.
Grant, Colin. Altruism and Christian Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Kittay, Eva Feder, and Myers, Diana T., eds. Women and Moral Theory. Totawa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987.
Mansbridge, Jane J., ed. Beyond Self-Interest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Paul, Ellen Frankel; Miller, Fred D., Jr.; and Paul, Jeffrey, eds. Altruism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Wyschogrod, Edith. Saints and Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Altruism (International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis)
Freud refers to the concept of altruism approximately ten times in his work, most often in a social or cultural context. In "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" he writes:
Throughout an individual's life there is a constant replacement of external by internal compulsion. The influences of civilization cause an ever-increasing transformation of egoistic trends into altruistic and social ones by an admixture of erotic elements. In the last resort it may be assumed that every internal compulsion which makes itself felt in the development of human beings was originallyhat is, in the history of mankindnly an external one. Those who are born to-day bring with them as an inherited organization some degree of tendency (disposition) towards the transformation of egoistic into social instincts, and this disposition is easily stimulated into bringing about that result. (1915b, p. 282).
In other cases, Freud uses the term most frequently against a background of what he called, in an exchange with Oskar Pfister, his "joyous pessimism." After pointing out that except when in love, "the opposite of egotism, altruism, does not, as a concept, coincide with libidinal object-cathexis" (1916-17a [1915-17], p. 418), he added, rather laconically, in Civilization and Its Discontents, "the development of the individual seems to us to be a product of the interaction between two urges, the urge towards happiness, which we usually call 'egoistic', and the urge towards union with others in the community, which we call 'altruistic'. Neither of these descriptions goes much below the surface. In the process of individual development, as we have said, the main accent falls mostly on the egoistic urge (or the urge towards happiness); while the other urge, which may be described as a 'cultural' one, is usually content with the role of imposing restrictions" (1930a , p. 140).
However, in the third part of The Ego and the Mechanism of Defence (1936/1937), Anna Freud provides an example of two types of defense, namely, "identification with the aggressor" and "a form of altruism." And in connection with the mechanism of projection, she conceives of "altruistic surrender" (altruistische Abtretung, according to the expression used by Edward Bibring):
The mechanism of projection disturbs our human relations when we project our own jealousy and attribute to other people our own aggressive acts. But it may work in another way as well, enagling us to form valuable positive attachments and so to consolidate our relations with one another. This normal and less conspicuous form of projection might be described as 'altruistic surrender' of our own instinctual impulses in favour of other people (p. 133).
Using a clinical example, Anna Freud analyzes the transference of the subject's own desires to others, a transference that enables the subject to participate in the instinctual satisfaction of another person through projection and identification. In speaking of this process, she refers to Paul Federn's comments concerning identification through sympathy.
The section of the book devoted to the study of two mechanisms of defense is is placed between a chapter on the preliminary stages of defensehe avoidance of unpleasure in the face of real dangers (negation through fantasy, negation through acts and words and withdrawal of the ego)nd a chapter on the phenomena of puberty and the defenses arising from fear associated with the intensity of instinctual processes. To Anna Freud, the mechanisms of identification with the aggressor and altruism can be conceived as intermediary stages of defense, centered on the transition from anxieties arising from external dangers to subsequent anxieties arising from internal dangers.
This explains the projection inherent in both types of defense and the role of the superego in the genesis of altruistic surrender: "Analysis of such situations shows that this defensive process has its origin in the infantile conflict with parental authority about some form of instinctual gratification" (p. 141). Other passages in her work support this view: "Her early renunciation of instinct had resulted in the formation of an exceptionally strong super-ego, which made it impossible for her to gratify her own wishes. . . . She projected her prohibited instinctual impulses on to other people, just as the patients did whose cases I quoted in the last chapter. . . . In most cases the substitute has once been the object of envy" (pp. 135-36, 136, 141). She also points out that altruistic surrender is a means for overcoming narcissistic humiliation.
Finally, for Anna Freud, altruism could involve libidinal impulses as well as destructive impulses and, moreover, could affect either the realization of desires or their renunciation. Her analysis of the mechanism of defense finishes with an approach to its connection with the fear of death, by examining the bonds between the hero Cyrano de Bergerac and his friend Christian. Anna Freud provides a concluding note on the similarity between the conditions needed to initiate altruistic surrender and those present during the formation of masculine homosexuality.
Anna Freud's position was subsequently revisited with respect to such concerns as the psychodynamics of anorexic adolescents.
See also: Antinarcissism; Burlingham-Tiffany, Dorothy; Identification with the aggressor; Reaction-formation.
Freud, Anna. (1937). The ego and the mechanisms of defence. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1936)
Freud, Sigmund. (1915b). Thoughts for the times on war and death. SE, 14: 275-300.
. (1916-17a [1915-17]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 15-16.
. (1930a ). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 64-145.
Freud, Anna. (1936). A form of altruism. In Writings of Anna Freud (Vol. 2, pp. 122-134).
McWilliams, Nancy. (1984). The psychology of the altruist. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 1, 193-214.
Seelig, Bud, et. al. (2001). Normal and pathological altruism. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 49, 933-960.