Animal Altruism

Altruism. Is it something special? Is it something unnatural, or supernatural? Or is it common and explainable by scientific thought? As one would probably surmise from the title of this blog and that of the group I represent here, I would support the latter claim. Altruistic behavior is consistent with biological thought and quite common.

In thinking about altruism, we should define altruistic behaviors. An altruistic behavior is one that benefits a given individual or individuals at a cost to the acting individual.

Also important to understand is fitness in terms of indirect and direct fitness. These, respectively, are measured in relative’s offspring produced (at a factor of relatedness, which decreases with farther away family ties) and the acting individual’s offspring produced, which are always (in sexual organisms) related to the actor at 1/2.



Now, what sort of situation could arise in which an organism would sacrifice its direct fitness for indirect fitness? An easy example to understand is that of older women in human populations who have ceased to reproduce and help their children raise young instead. This could be vastly more beneficial to the acting individual in that they could gain more related individuals (of a halved relatedness, in the case of no inbreeding) by making their children able to maintain a larger family group. Perhaps they would be able to produce a singular offspring whereas their existing children could have 5 to 8 offspring. In addition in this case, reproduction by older females is dangerous and could result in damage to the female or in damaged offspring. Her daughters, however, could likely be more virile and able to bear the burdens of reproduction.

Consider another situation. A nesting bird can reproduce in its first year of fertility, without developed skills in raising young. Alternatively, it can help its parents raise a next brood of siblings, and better learn skills required to raise young of its own. It is worth noting that caring for a clutch in one’s first year of mating capability will indeed result in having an extra clutch advantage over those who wait. However, the cost to the individual spans throughout its lifetime, as the hardships of the first year clutch lower its later success rate and result in smaller clutch sizes throughout life.

prairie dog

Behaviors like this are common in animals, and one can see how increased production of individuals carrying a gene or set which would encourage these behaviors would propagate faster than one which does not, as it would spread through more and more indirect relatives and offspring. Consider signalling in prairie dogs, which put’s the warn-er at risk but lowers risk of a predator to the others. This has been observed to be more common when a prairie dog is around her daughters or mother than around strangers, which would support the indirect behavior benefit idea.

If altruism is something supernatural and unexplainable, why then is it so easy to understand and explain in real world terms? Is there any reason our ultimate survivor-ship is insufficient to explain behaviors many would describe as ‘good’ or even ‘moral’?

Speaking of morals, I do not believe that there is any moral belief that can not be explained by empathy. Yes, simply empathy. If you are turned off by the science I have presented so far, perhaps consider my simpler opinion. Why shouldn’t one kill another?

Besides the easy reasons like ‘I could get in trouble and be jailed’ or ‘I really don’t want to wash more bloodstains out of my work shirt’ there is also the idea that you wouldn’t kill because you wouldn’t want to be killed. Try thinking about the family of the murdered and what they would think and feel. Understanding the repercussions of one’s actions and feeling empathy towards others could dissuade a person from an act like homicide. It does not need to be a written rule for most people to not kill other people, so long as their empathy is intact.


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