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July 31, 2011

Is Altruism Really Selfless?

It has long been assumed that altruism is something that we humans posses that other animals don?t. That our capacity for empathy applies only to us because we have such an overdeveloped cortex capable of higher-level processing. However, what if this is not true? What if primates, our evolutionary predecessors also had this capacity? What does this mean about our sense of selflessness and morality? The ideas presented by Frans De Waal in his article Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy could have larger societal implications than just an explanation for morality. The ideas in this article question religious ideas and bring us one step closer to primates by suggesting that empathy evolved from primates. Instead of thinking of our ideas of altruism and morality as being handed down to us from up above (like religious ideas claim) maybe we should think of them as being passed up from below.

Frans De Waal is the director of a primate research institute in Atlanta Georgia. He argues that his primates regularly display altruistic behavior and therefore there has to be some sort of mechanism in the brain that is already wired to create altruistic behavior or is in place to learn altruistic behavior. In a radio interview Dr. De Waal tells stories of chimpanzees sharing treats so that everyone in the pack gets a little. He also cites instances where children have fallen into gorilla enclosures and the female gorillas have comforted the children and brought them to areas where they could be rescued by zookeepers as empathetic behavior. In his article, De Waal introduces some cognitive models of empathy. He proposes the ?Perception Action Mechanism? where motor neurons in a subject mirror the state of an object. And the ?Russian Doll Model? where empathy is a result of our higher-level cognition that uses a hard-wired basis to create empathy. Frans De Waal argues that being altruistic could have had evolutionary advantages that caused the trait to be selected for. A simple explanation would be if a primate was part of a pack and they hurt other members they would be ostracized and die without reproducing. But those who were good and able to work as a unit as opposed to as an individual would be kept under the protection of the pack. The mechanisms suggested above are the biological mechanism by which these traits are passed on evolutionarily.

De Waals points are intriguing but what really intrigues me is the social implications this article has. First of all, it is one more example of how similar we are to primates. The larger implication is that not only are we more similar, but we are more similar in a behavioral aspect that we humans had previously thought was part of our higher-level cognition: we thought empathy and altruistic thoughts were too complex for primates. Along with this implication comes a fear. If in fact there is a specific mechanism in the brain that controls altruistic behaviors what could happen if we were able to identify it? People could be tested to see if this area was underdeveloped, or abnormal in some way that would make them a hazard to society. Could we start condemning people to horrible, immoral acts before they happen based on their brain makeup? And, if we could, would this be a moral thing to do?

De Waal, Frans B.M. "Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy." Annual Review of Psychology 59.1 (2008): 279-300. PubMed. Web. 31 July 2011. .
Posted by      Eileen E. at 11:15 PM MDT


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