Selfish Altruism

The word 'altruism' is derived from the Italian word 'altrui’, which is derived from Latin 'alteri’, meaning 'other people' or 'somebody else’. When we describe someone as 'altruistic’, we usually mean that the particular individual is selfless, and able to put the needs of others before the self, sometimes even sacrificing personal welfare for the good of the people around him/her. However, is altruism truly selfless, or fundamentally selfish?

Biological Altruism

Cute Altruistic Grooming Monkeys

Before looking into human behavior, let’s examine the altruistic behavior of other animals first. This is known as 'biological altruism’, and examples include calls of warning against predator by the Vervet monkeys, or walruses adopting orphans who have lost their parents to predation. Acts of biological altruism have puzzled early evolutionary biologists for a long time. For one, Charles Darwin, the father figure of evolution who discovered evolution via natural selection and a brilliant naturalist who believed in the survival and propagation of genes of the fittest was perplexed after observing seemingly selfless acts of altruism. So why would organisms be selfless when it reduces an their own fitness? Why does altruism exist at all?

Later on, biologists proposed some mechanisms of altruism which were in line with observations in experiments, which shine light on the reason behind altruism. Here are some mechanisms of biological altruism:

Kim Selection

Kin selection is one of the most common and well-known mechanisms of altruism. It describes altruistic behaviour which benefits closely-related individuals, hence enhancing the close kin’s ability to survive and pass on its own genes to the next generation. As that individual is closely related to the altruistic individual, the altruistic behaviour enhances the passing down of very similar genes.

Kin selection typically follow’s Hamilton’s rule, which states that if the following equation is satisfied, altruism is favoured by natural selection.

As can be seen above, there exists a cost-benefit balance which must be upheld if altruism is to be favoured, which is crucial for the following arguments.


‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’ In this case, a system is in place such that acts of altruism are reciprocated, either directly or indirectly, such that each party ends up better off. This sounds simple enough, but in reality it is quite a lot more complex. Usually, acts of altruism cannot be reciprocated immediately, and as a result there usually is a long delay between receiving the donor’s benefits and subsequently helping others. Moreover, the ones who were helped are not obligated to help, as 'cheaters' can exploit the system to better their fitness. In fact, there are many other factors in the ecosystem which have to be evaluated and weighed, before altruistic acts and reciprocation is favoured by natural selection.

The evolution of reciprocated altruism can also be explained using game theory, a branch of mathematics devoted to model and understand logical decision making. In biological systems, organisms encounter each other more than once and the outcome of encounter dictates the behaviour of the individual for subsequent encounters. Models have shown that this 'tit for tat' strategy employed can eventually lead to cooperation being an evolutionary stable strategy.

Costly Signalling and the Handicap Principle

This mechanism is rather similar to that of sexual selection. In this case, the acts of altruism, usually resulting in a reduction of the donor’s fitness, acts as a indication to potential mates that the individual has an abundance of resources and is generally fit enough to survive even with self-inflicted disadvantages. Using the attraction of mates, the altruistic organisms will have a good chance of passing down their genes, even with a higher mortality rate. However, like sexual selection, altruistic behaviour will only be favoured if there is a net positive effect of altruism on the ability of the donor to pass down their genes.

A parallel can be drawn between the three mechanisms mentioned above, and that is the fact that biological altruism is selfish in nature. Altruistic acts are made by organisms only when it does more harm than good. Instead of selfless acts of benevolence, altruism reveals itself to be a thoroughly calculated investment to increase the fitness of the self.

It has been established that biological altruism is selfish, but what about huamn altruism? Actually, we can observe some striking similarities between the mechanisms of biological altruism and certain societal trends today.

Kin Selection in Society

This is easily the most straightforward comparison. Beyond the parent-child relationship, it is a natural tendency to treat closely-related family members better than complete strangers. It comes so naturally that we don’t always notice the nature of our actions, but if you think about it, this closely mimics kin selection in the wild. We help close relatives because they have similar genes, and their success becomes our success.

Reciprocity in Society

In today’s highly social society, mutual help confers a great advantage to those who help others and hence receives help from others. Life is never a bed of roses, and those who receive help to brave through stormy times, or to climb to greater heights, usually find themselves to be more successful. Especially since humans are able to effectively and precisely communicate with one another, it becomes much easier to reach a mutual understanding of reciprocity. Hence, altruism and reciprocity have evolved to be a powerful force in society, and individuals utilise this societal trend for personal gain.

Costly Signalling and the Handicap Principle in Society

Personal image, a general measure of how people perceive you, is important to maintain in society. Image dictates how individuals, or even groups and corporations are treated. Furthermore, beneficial relationships such as trust and cooperation can be built from image, which can be improved via practicing altruistic acts. This enhances the possibility of reciprocating altruistic acts, further maximising the benefits from the previous mechanism

On top of that, women have been found to find altruistic men attractive, which could be a evolutionary trait passed down from ancestral animals.

Similar to biological altruism, altruistic acts between humans also confer significant advantage to the donor, and some of these mechanisms can be hypothesised to have descended from our ancestors. Hence, to say that people selflessly perform altruistic acts out of good will is not entirely correct, since this nature has already been programmed into us because altruism is beneficial for the self.

The Neurobiology of Altruism

The Complex Human Brain, Illustrated

With the 'why' of human altruism out of the way, let’s look at 'how' our bodies are tuned towards altruism, particularly our brains.

Two notable neurologists, Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafmam, were the first to show that altruistic behaviours activate certain neural networks in the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In 2006, they showed that the act of donating activated the mesolimbic reward pathway, a primitive part of the brain which typically responds to food and sex. Other brain circuits such as the subgenual cortex or septal region were also activated, which is linked to social attachment and bonding. These experiments show that altruistic behaviour in humans is primal and instinctive, as our brains are hardwired to excrete pleasurable signals, so as to promote such acts which benefits individual fitness.

On top of that, there also are regions of the brain dedicated to learning altruistic behaviour, as well as traits like empathy. To further fortify the idea of primal programming, scientists have examined special case studies involving people with damage to certain parts of the brain associated to altruism. These people function normally on the surface, but lose the ability to empathise entirely, instead giving 'end-justifies-the-mean' answers to moral questions.

Both positive (fMRI) and negative (brain damage) studies demonstrate that altruistic behaviour has been programmed into us since birth, an important mechanism which ultimately benefits us, selfishly.

Psychological Altruism

The former two arguments have shown that altruistic behaviour of us humans are selfish by nature. However, men have shown to oppose nature in every way they can. Just as how some of us choose to be vegetarian and even vegan, or choose to love someone of the same gender, can we choose to be selfless, and oppose our innate selfish nature?

The psychology of altruism has always been difficult to investigate, but the general consensus of psychologists working in this field is that empathy-induced altruism can be genuinely selfless. The empathy-altruism hypothesis states that psychological altruism exists and is evoked by the empathic desire to help someone who is suffering.

Selfish or Selfless Altruism?

A Win-Win Situation

So, what can we conclude from the few aspects of altruism laid out in front of us? Are our altruistic tendencies truly selfish or selfless?

To be honest, I do not have a conclusive answer for you. Something which can be easily inferred is that every altruistic intention from any person is encouraged by an innate and inevitable selfish program in our brains. No matter what, our nature has a role to play in our behavior and decisions. After all, George Robert Price, a well-known population geneticist who contributed greatly in the field of altruism, including the discovery of the Price equation, grew depressed and committed suicide after his attempts of looking for selfless altruism in nature failed, as his own experiments and findings had shown that altruism is innately a selfish act.

Keeping that fact in mind, the next question to ask would be: To what extent is human altruism selfish or selfless? As intelligent and advanced Homo sapiens, to what extent can we override our natural selves, and go against what our bodies are programmed to do? There is little quantitative data to back up either stance, but personally, I feel that it is possible but ineffective. It is my belief that our first contact with the decision making matrix is our primal instincts, which ultimately plays a hugely significant role in the final decision.

I write this article not for sinister intent, and do not wish to insult the motivations of those benevolent souls out there, but the message I wish to convey is simply for you readers to be aware of this nature. Instead of being skeptical and criticising a person for being nice and acting selflessly, we should learn to accept that as the norm and embrace it. Nature already makes altruism instinctive, so we have even less of a reason to attack others out of spite. Furthermore, acts of altruism, however selfish the motivation, ultimately benefits the donor, as well as the people around him or her. In the end, if everyone, including individuals, groups, corporations and governments, are selfless and altruistic, I am sure that the world would be a better place to live in.

As Ellen DeGeneres closes her show rather aptly, “Be nice to one another. Bye bye!”

See you in the next article!

“Be Kind To One Another. Bye Bye!”




Critically analysing life a lot more than I should.

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Yeo Shen Yong

Yeo Shen Yong

Critically analysing life a lot more than I should.

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