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Altruism in Society and Nature

Newnan, GA

Altruism, also known as selflessness, is a behavior that… doesn’t really make sense. By definition, altruism doesn’t benefit the organism performing it, but rather benefits another party sharing the same family, species, or sometimes another organism completely. In this article, we will explore altruism in humans and other species, if it’s even real, why it exists, and its benefits in the survival of species.

Derived from the word “alteri,” meaning “other people,” altruism is the expression of concern for the well-being of others, as well as behavior that benefits another individual at an organism’s own expense. While acts of altruism often elicit positive emotions and feelings of fulfillment, the driving force behind them is the desire to alleviate suffering or enhance the welfare of others. Altruism can manifest in various ways, from monetary/resource generosity to sacrifice of one’s own life.

DNA, reproduction, altruism, selection, evolution
DNA Model

From an evolutionary perspective, where the goal is to pass on genetic material to future generations, altruism seems to be paradoxical. After all, to pass on your DNA in a life-or-death scenario pretty much requires you to be selfish. However, altruism can still occur and persist due to various factors.

One factor is kin selection, where altruism is directed toward close relatives who share similar genetics. By helping relatives, individuals indirectly increase the chances of their shared genes being passed on. This concept forms the basis of Hamilton's rule, which states that altruism will be favored when the benefits of it, multiplied by the recipients’ genetic similarity, exceeds the costs to the altruistic individual.

Beyond kin selection, reciprocal altruism also plays a role. This can be summarized as “I did something for you, now you have to do something for me.” This concept of debts is mostly human. However, there are natural resemblances, such as mutual symbiosis, where there is an evolved relationship between species where both benefit. Although mutual symbiosis isn’t a conscious agreement like a contract and isn’t really altruism since it benefits both parties, it is still worth mentioning. It resembles altruism, but with a selfish side to it.

Cleaner fish, altruism, symbiosis, evolution, reciprocity
Cleaner Fish Cleaning Teeth

An example of mutual symbiosis is cleaner fish. Cleaner fish swim around and eat scraps of food off of predator fish’s teeth. This provides them with food, and cleans others’ teeth, but this isn’t really altruism, just a relationship for survival.

Many animals, such as bats, parrots, and meerkats show altruistic behavior, as it is most apparent in social species. Specifically, bats and parrots share food with other members of their species, and meerkats help others by taking care of the young even though they aren’t directly related. Cooperative insects, like bees and ants, also show altruistic behavior (though it isn’t conscious) when fighting to defend their queen and working for the good of the group.

In human society, altruism is seemingly everywhere, from lending a pencil to donating money. However, some psychologists argue that altruism doesn't exist, rather most human altruism has some personal gain attached to it. For example, if one was to donate to a charity, they get personal gratification. If you lend a pencil, your reputation increases. In this way, helping others isn’t true altruism, even if it is good or kind behavior.

Donation, charity, altruism, reciprosity, reciprocal, money
Donation Basket

Additionally, reciprocal altruism can be exploited. Individuals may engage in seemingly altruistic acts with the expectation of receiving future benefits. This can be shown in business negotiation, where a company can concede some terms to benefit the other side, and expect the other side to reciprocate.

The persistence of altruism remains a subject of fascination for researchers. While the evolutionary explanations of kin selection and reciprocal altruism provide some insights, they don’t account for all forms of selflessness observed in nature. Some argue that altruism may have emerged as a byproduct of other traits or cognitive processes, such as empathy and cooperation, which have their own evolutionary advantages.

Social interactions, altruism, genes, environment, business, evolution
Social Interactions Create Altruism

Additionally, the complexity of social interactions and the ability to recognize and respond to the needs of others may have contributed to the emergence of altruism. The overlap between genes, environment, and individual experiences may shape the expression of altruistic behavior, adding another layer of complexity to its existence.

Altruism challenges our understanding of evolution and forces us to think about the balance between self-interest and concern for others. Though there are many examples of true altruism, there are also selfish motives in our world masquerading as altruism. Altruism is a behavior that helps organisms survive by encouraging cooperation and productive relationships instead of killing. In the end, this seemingly simple idea has layers of complexity that continually drive its occurrence in our modern world.

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“Are Animals Altruistic?” National Aquarium, 21 Feb. 2020,

Burton, Neel. “Does True Altruism Exist?” Psychology Today, 2012, altruism-exist.

Purushotham, Chetana. “Connect. Collaborate. Express | RoundGlass Living.”, 2022,

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댓글 3개

Jerome Loafman
Jerome Loafman
2023년 8월 25일

Wow such an interesting article

Jerome Loafman
Jerome Loafman
2023년 8월 25일
답글 상대:

You're welcome bro

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