Sunday Post Early – Altruism

I’ll be out of town tomorrow, so I saved up an interesting topic that we can get started on this week and continue at some point in the future.

Understanding our own social behavior, ethics, and morals is a monumental challenge. Human behavior is complex, to say the least. We can still learn a great deal about our own social conventions by examining the behavior of animals.

There have been a few articles (in Nature, Smithsonian Magazine, and online) recently that deal specifically with our tendency to identify altruism. Altruism, the act of helping others, is something that seems to be understood by human babies as young as 3 months. It’s fascinating to consider.

This article talks about a study and what it may imply about our own behavior. Have a look. I’m curious about what you’ve observed from your own pets or other animals. Do you think they understand altruism?

Here’s the article.



Filed under behavior, communication, ethics, human interest, nature

2 responses to “Sunday Post Early – Altruism

  1. David

    I read a very interesting study in PNAS a year or two back, showing that dogs have a concept of ‘fair rewards’: given a rewarded task, dogs will lose interest in the task faster if they see another dog receiving higher rewards for the same task. This seems to require a subset of the cognitive capabilities that altruism requires: assessment of relative rewards, and comparison of their value to others. (But not the key component of altruism: “can I afford to lose this benefit to myself in order to allow it to benefit this other person?”)

    It also applies a hint of the same faculty that’s discussed in the article: “there is something in this situation that suggests inadequate rewards for me, therefore I should probably stay away from it”. That’s obviously tenuous though. 🙂

    However, I personally have never observed any dog displaying actual altruistic behaviour. Konrad Lorenz speaks of a terrier he had who’d staunchly defend him against any aggressor of any size, but I put that down to the self-evident fact that terriers have low self-preservation instinct. After all, it’s not altruism if you’re not risking you care about losing.

    If I did see apparently-altruistic behaviour in a dog, I would first attempt to explain it in terms of other non-altruistic impulses, like the instinct to nurture young animals. For instance, a dog may raise a cheetah cub in a zoo, but I ascribe that to the fact that, in an evolutionary context, wolves typically only encounter two kinds of young creature: (a) relatives, and (b) food. So, if you’re a wolf, and you’re confronted with something small and fuzzy and squeaky, and you don’t have the urge to eat it, then presumably the chances are you’re related to it and have a vested interest in helping it grow up big and strong. Therefore it’s easy to imagine that there is little selection pressure on wolves to be very choosy about what they nurture. So, what looks like to altruism to humans, may actually just be a lack of instinctive discrimination.

    The only genuinely altruistic animal I know is our own sled-dog, who selflessly endures no end of belly-rubs and cuddles, despite terrible insult to his dignity and the drastic imposition on his all-important sleeping schedule.

  2. These are very perceptive, interesting thoughts! (Especially the belly rubs. Our cats at work truly do hate them. 😉 )

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