Altruism Essay

Altruism Essay

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Why do we show altruism? Social and evolutionary biologists, psychologists, economists and philosophers alike have made many attempts at providing an explanation for altruism. As a result, many opposing theories have developed over the years. In this essay, I will attempt to explain altruism as the presence of an altruistic gene which is selected for by natural selection in terms of kin selection. I will explore evidence supporting this theory, as well as evidence pointing to psychological explanations such as reciprocal altruism, social norms and primitive sympathy.

First, it is important to understand what altruism is. Altruism is any act carried out by an individual in order to benefit another individual. [1, 2] At first glance, explaining altruism in terms of natural selection may seem contradictory. [1] After all, natural selection is loosely defined as “survival of the fittest”. It follows that, genetic variability in individuals’ results in a selection process allowing those better adapted to their natural environment to survive and reproduce.[3] The genes which allow these individuals to survive are thus passed on to their offspring. [3] If natural selection is based solely on individual survival and selfishness, altruistic genes should have been selected against, and the origin of this behaviour could not possibly be a result of evolution but, is instead a result of learning or social pressures. [2] However, according to the study of Hebb, 1972, altruism is in fact an emotional state that is a product of evolution rather than learning, as cited by Plutchik. [4] This statement is supported by recent studies proving that an altruistic gene is present in the genotype of modern day humans and the presence of AVPR1 has been...


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...lection of this gene in our ancestors has allowed small kin-related groups to flourish into a modern and ever growing altruistic society. However, one distinctive problem with altruism has arisen. Whichever way you look at it, altruism stems from selfishness. [11] The presence of altruistic genes in humans today resulted from the selfish notion of gene inheritance. After all, genes are selfish and a person is simply the gene’s method of survival. [12] Reciprocal altruism, primitive passive sympathy and altruistic behaviour through social norms are acts which largely benefit the individual and can hardly be seen as a selfless act. In conclusion, altruism should not be defined as an act carried out by an individual in order to benefit another individual rather, it should be defined as an act carried out by an individual, regardless of motive to benefit another. [13]

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