Science shows that cooperating and helping others is actually our first impulse, and another manifestation of the survival instinct complementary to selfishness.
For the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, altruism is “the will to act in consideration of the interests of other people, without the need for ulterior motives”. Share what you have without expecting any benefit in return. Help without expecting reciprocity in helping. An impulse strongly linked to generosity, solidarity, the willingness to cooperate, the feeling of justice and equity.
When we think of altruism, we often confront it with selfishness. As if it were the struggle between an angel who tells us in the right ear that we care about helping our neighbor and a devil who whispers in our left ear that we think only about our interests.
We have been educated to think that they are two antagonistic impulses, but scientists have come to the conclusion mainly thanks to experiments in the last decade that they are two complementary (although sometimes conflicting) faces of the basic survival instinct.
WHY ARE WE ALTRUISTIC?
For many years, scientists have argued that humans were genetically selfish, that we could only act altruistically for moral reasons and through very strict control of our basic impulses. They were based on the fact that the individual survival instinct (the basis of selfishness) is an adaptive trait of great value, since it increases the chances of staying alive until reproduction and, therefore, of transmitting our genes to the next generation.
In 1976, evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford published The Selfish Gene and greatly popularized this belief. In fact, it was a thought that Charles Darwin himself had assumed in 1859, that altruism was a spiritual issue tied to a high degree of morality. He knew how to foresee that a group in which all its members were fully altruistic would have a greater probability of avoiding its extinction since the probability of an individual’s survival is reinforced when they receive the help of their peers.
Darwin was extremely puzzled by the discoveries of altruistic behavior in animals prior to Homo sapiens on the evolutionary scale. He acknowledges in his writings that it is difficult to fit into his evolutionary model of natural selection. A long scientific debate lasting more than a hundred years has revealed that his mistake consisted in attributing to altruism an exclusively moral character, of cultural learning.
GENEROSITY PUT TO THE TEST
We know today that taking care of the well-being of others has, in reality, genetic roots and is a derivation of the social instinct (living in groups), which, in turn, is a derivation of the biological instinct for survival present in all social species.
- The ants of the species Temnothorax unifasciatus leave the colony before dying away from their peers. A preventive strategy to avoid infecting the collective, and a demonstration that altruism is already present in insect societies, according to researchers from the University of Regensburg (Germany), who carried out a study of these ants published in 2010.
- At the University of Chicago, they experimentally verified in 2011 that small rodents help each other in dangerous situations. They subjected two guinea pigs who lived together to very different situations: one was locked inside a transparent tube with a door that can only be opened from the outside. The second was allowed to roam freely in the cozy cage.
The free guinea pig was disturbed when seeing and hearing the moans of its trapped companion with a response of “emotional contagion”, a common phenomenon in humans and animals, in which an individual shares fear, anguish or even, to some extent, pain, suffered by another subject.
After several sessions, the free guinea pig learned to open the door and free its mate. Importantly, the researchers did not train the guinea pig to open the tube door. He learned it on his own, motivated by his automatic urge to find a way to end his “partner’s” suffering as quickly as possible.
Empathy is the mechanism that biology uses to condition supportive and generous responses in mammals.
ARE WE GENEROUS BY NATURE?
It has been widely shown that children also have altruistic impulses from a very young age. Eighteen-month-olds spontaneously help the child psychologist to retrieve the objects that have been dropped, although they are quickly inhibited if they discover that the falling objects are not involuntary, but caused. Well-nourished children between the ages of three and seven spontaneously share half their breakfast with their partner who lacks it.
In 2013, Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, from Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, respectively, demonstrated that the sense of reciprocity acts in humans as a regulatory mechanism to prevent abuses from occurring in their natural tendency to altruism.
They observed that children under three years of age are altruistic without expecting anything in return and that, from the age of four, they apply their altruism more selectively depending on the reciprocity received. Obviously, the lack of reciprocity inhibits the impulse to share rather than to help, since providing one’s own resources always has a higher cost.
Patricia Kanngiesser, from the University of Bristol (England), concludes: “ Children are generous by nature in their first years of life, they become more selfish around the age of four and around seven they learn to be generous again according to the social norms of their community ”.
THE ALTRUISTIC GENE
Scientific discoveries show that selfishness and altruism are transmitted through specific genes.
- In 2007, Israeli scientists found that a variation in the AVPR1a gene is present in the most altruistic individuals.
- In 2010, researchers at the University of Bonn (Germany) found that those with a type of tiny variant in a gene called COMT were twice as generous.
- From birth, therefore, some people inherit a greater drive for selfishness than others, but the environment and culture also determine it, increasing or decreasing this tendency. It is not true that humanity has secularly used culture to promote the altruistic impulse, but on the contrary, culture and religion have been used to inhibit instinctive altruism and encourage violent and oppressive behaviors against predetermined groups.
- Perhaps science should ask the opposite question to the one that has been posed up to now: to what extent are unscrupulous selfishness, the exploitation of man by man, the indifference (or even the possible pleasure) for the suffering of others, of different cultures and different social environments? And it is that the different instinctual impulses have, sometimes, contradictory directions.
While the territorial instinct of a child pushes him not to want to share his toys with the children he has just met in the playground, his social instinct pushes him to play with them. If a criminal is attacking one of our children, the instinct of self-protection pushes us to stay still (or flee) so as not to be harmed, but the instinct of conservation of the species pushes us to give our lives, if necessary, so that our child is not harmed. Although violence and human horrors incline us to believe that being altruistic is unnatural, the reality is that they are a consequence of the supremacy that the territorial and survival instinct of the individual acquires over the instinct of social cooperation due to the strong cultural conditioning factors provided by the politics and religions. The more sociable primates have been found to be less aggressive, better parents, and live longer.
Humans are only violent and hostile under specific conditions: when they are subjected to pressure, abuse or neglect, or when they suffer from mental illness. But the truth is that a few liters of ink are enough to dirty the crystal-clear waters of an entire pool.
- It is relatively easy to be altruistic when you only have to contribute a little of how much you own. The true strength of altruism is knowing how to share what is scarce with someone who is worse off than you.
- Do not condition your altruism on your mood: the needs of the people you relate to are what they are.
- Preventing your bad mood from affecting those around you is your first everyday opportunity to practice altruism.
- Don’t restrict your altruism to just people you like. Don’t put mean filters on such a high motivation.
- If you really are altruistic, don’t wait for them to ask you for favors to give them. Offer the help they need before they ask for it.
- Don’t waste time explaining to your children (if you have them) or the people around you that they should practice good. Just set an example and they will follow.