"We are all here on earth to help others. What I can't figure out is what the others are here for." --W. H. Auden (1)
Whether we are here to help others is a question I've often asked myself, and a question I will not be able to answer while I am still here on earth. Perhaps before I even consider that question, however, I should wonder whether we even can be here to help others: is selflessness really possible? Or is "altruism" merely doing things for others in order to feel good about ourselves? If human altruism exists, how does our neural system deal with it?
The issue of altruism is complicated by the lack of agreement about many aspects of it, including its very definition. The word altruism, which comes from the Italian altrui, was coined in 1851 by August Comte to refer to benevolence (2). Although not everyone agrees today on what precisely altruism entails, the most basic definition is seeking the welfare of others (1). This definition is often extended, however, to include the necessity of some personal sacrifice on the part of the altruist; Edward O. Wilson defined altruism as "self-destructive behavior performed for the benefit of others" (1), (3). There is also an idea of reciprocal altruism, which is self-sacrificing behavior with the expectation that the favor will be returned eventually (4). If this behavior is motivated by the desire for future reward, it does not really fit the generally accepted definitions of altruism.
In nonhuman animals, altruism is mainly seen in the form of one animal sacrificing or risking its life to save another. Studies of animals by researchers such as Hamilton, who worked with bees who sacrifice themselves to allow the queen to produce of...
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3) Give Until It Hurts: Altruism and Advertising
4) Biology, Evolution and the Global Brain
5) A justification of societal altruism according to the memetic application of Hamilton's rule
6) The Evolution of Reciprocal Sharing
7) The Problem of Altruism
8) Evolution, Altruism and Genetic Similarity Theory
9) Sex Differences in Altruism
10) Thinking with the Heart and Feeling with the Brain
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