Altruism: The Last Bastion of Humanity?

iStock_000019360997XSmallThis appears to be a deeply pessimistic time to be human. I have written extensively about the happy dehumanization of our species within these posts. Various forms of reductive physicalism and eliminative materialism are now in vogue. Our faith in science seems secure; nothing appears to escape the explanatory power of the materialist worldview – not even ourselves. People are understood to be caused by mechanistic brains, and almost any human behavior is nowadays hypothesized as being perhaps ultimately influenced by some genetic script – one holding survival and reproductive advantages for the organism. Humans are increasingly viewed as biological machines whose functions aim to secure their own selfish needs.  

And yet human altruism seemed an ill fit for this way of viewing ourselves. How do we explain why people do things to help others when it disadvantages themselves and their own genetic fitness?

About 50 years ago, W.D. Hamilton believed he had stumbled upon the answer. In addition to individual survival and reproduction, Hamilton considered the fitness of relatives, which he called inclusive fitness. In his mind, inclusive fitness could explain the origin and spread of altruism. His formula became what is known as Hamilton’s Rule: r > c/b; where, r is the genetic similarity among organisms, c is the cost in fitness to the actor for engaging in a trait or behavior, and b is the fitness advantage to the genetically related organism. Hamilton’s rule has been especially helpful in understanding the selfless behavior of insects (e.g. ants and bees), and researchers have been just as eager to apply this model to understanding human altruism.     

Last month, I read a journal article published by several Canadian biologists, titled: Genes underlying altruism (Thompson, Hurd & Crespi, 2013). The authors aimed to “develop a set of criteria to characterize genes underlying altruism…” and outline specific approaches that might help “… to identify the molecular mechanisms that underpin Hamilton’s theory.”  They also claimed to present data “relating two candidate genes for human altruism (OXTR and CD38), which mediate levels of plasma oxytocin, to their phenotypic effects on social and non-social cognition and behavior” (p. 1). I will not recount the whole paper, but it is worth noting that in their conceptual analysis they seem quite comfortable comparing the ‘altruism’ and ‘sociality’ of ants with that of humans. It is not clear to me how they are in any way similar, or if they could be, how one would control for the variables that make human altruism different. Are we really talking about the same thing?


The authors also make some questionable claims about the inheritance of certain neuro-chemicals believed to underlie and presumably cause altruistic behavior. For example, nowhere is there acknowledgement that the neuropeptides they talk about are also enhanced by experience-dependent gene activation by way of social relationships (e.g. Panksepp, 2013). And even if altruistic acts were found to involve certain neuropeptides, this describes part of a mechanism that might prove correlation, not causation. In the end, their conclusion, like the analysis, is both simple and overconfident: “students of social evolution are now poised to discover and characterize the ‘genes for altruism’ postulated 50 years ago by Hamilton” (p. 5).   

Human Altruism is not a Gene

It is deeply disappointing to read these kinds of ‘scientific’ papers. Intellectual hubris appears to undercut any ability to acknowledge or scrutinize theoretical assumptions. In my view, these scientists fundamentally mistake what it means to be human, and so try to make us to be something that we are not. Since ants and bees presumably lack consciousness, agency, free-will, and intentionality, the only kind of altruism they could possess is a mechanistic kind dictated almost entirely by genes. This is not true of human beings; in fact, I would argue that human altruism often demonstrates, perhaps more than anything else, the profound dignity to be found among the best of our kind.

Humans are unique in that we are tasked with the burden of inventing meaning – we create some set of values out of our absurd existence, including the values of freedom and justice. Within this community of subjective minds, we are also responsible for upholding, defending, or discarding such values. The kind of values I am talking about here transcends a purely mechanistic system of biological causes. Thus even a small person, can, in the name of justice, fairness, and concern for others, decide that they will put themselves in harm’s way to help another. Also note that the subjective agent may also, as a matter of consistency, orient their emotions to the service of a rational or sociocultural value they deem worthy of defending. In this way, courageous acts can become implicit and almost instinctive. I will say again that humans are the only creatures that can put some non-physical value or meaning above their own survival needs. This is where our dignity lies.


The eliminative materialists and universal Darwinists talk endlessly about the importance of ‘kinship.’ However they talk in a narrow sense where ‘kin’ is synonymous with genetic relatedness. But we can alternatively find kinship within our cultural community, the social world of ideas, and man-made meanings. Any inquiry into the genetic basis of altruism must be capable of appreciating how this makes human altruism different from the kind possessed by ants and bees. Human selflessness is not dictated by genes; humans are not altruistic automata. Yet there are obvious advantages for those in power to fund scientific studies that continue to paint precisely that kind of picture. For if we are passive victims, of either genes or culture, there is little we can do to change what exists. Fatalism is a myth that serves those in power by fooling the masses to believe they are power-less. It also serves the masses by relieving them of the burden of freedom and responsibility.

It is a deeply pessimistic age that wants to construe an altruistic act, not as my act, but rather that of my genes. This science wants to degrade me; it wants to call illusion that which perhaps makes me most human. We have reason to be indignant… let’s not allow ourselves be dehumanized anymore.

Updated Content (March 2015): I teach a fourth-year theoretical psychology course; in a recent class, altruism became a brief topic of discussion. I was amazed at how many students assumed that there were no significant differences between human and non-human forms of altruism. What follows, is my response and challenge to the class:

Thank you all for a lively class discussion. I hope that some of you will be encouraged to continue it. Toward the end of the class, I was highlighting the possible dangers in making comparisons between humans and non-human animals. In particular, I was drawing attention to the problem of anthropomorphism – where we uncritically assume that many non-human animals possess higher-order human qualities (e.g. agency, consciousness, intentions, thoughts, and beliefs).

I gave the example of ‘altruism,’ which I will define here as an organism expending significant biological resources, or even putting itself at risk of physical harm, for the benefit of another organism. We talked briefly about scientists who have investigated the altruistic behavior of ants and bees. They typically explain such behavior by way of inclusive fitness models and/or and the concept of reciprocal altruism. Some researchers assume that since the ‘altruistic acts’ of bees and humans are essentially operating by the same mechanisms, the comparison is wholly appropriate. I tend to disagree.

I asked the class if there might be something ‘different’ about human altruism that could make an uncritical comparison problematic. I hinted at the possibility that humans are, at least sometimes, ‘aware’ of the fact that they are putting themselves at risk – that they in many cases ‘know’ what they are doing. I asked if people believed that the ant (or bee) was consciously aware of its actions, or that it was able to likewise know what it was doing. Many of you were unsure; or, what right do I have to say that it doesn’t?

While I fully expect people to defend the consciousness of primates, dogs, and perhaps even elephants, I had no idea that there was such ambivalence about the possibility of insect consciousness! If taken seriously, it is not clear to me why the argument “… but how do you know?” should not cause us to also consider the possibility that worms and bacteria are likewise conscious entities capable of self-awareness and abstract knowledge.

Before I continue, let me sketch out a quick outline of what I think we should mean when we talk about consciousness, differentiating it from some related terms. At the very bottom (or close to it), we have very basic organisms capable of highly stereotyped stimulus-response (input-output) relation states. Note that some fairly complex behavior can be built out of simple nervous systems operating on this level. At higher levels, an animal has developed some degree of sentience – the ability to experience sensations, though the organism is still highly programmed by tropism and instinct (to respond to the environment in particular ways), so there is arguably no self-awareness or real agency at this level. Greater degrees of consciousness will lead to basic awareness – the ability to perceive, to feel, or to be conscious of events, objects, or sensory patterns. Further development of consciousness involves the beginnings of self-awareness (fleeting capacity for the organism to identify itself as an object), and even greater development leads to a capacity for sustained self-awareness and true agency, along with symbolic reference and higher orders of intentionality – the power of the mind to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things properties, or states of affairs. It is only at these later levels where the possibility of explicit knowledge exists. Many argue that these latter capacities enable an awareness of possibility, deliberation, and agent-driven choice.

Now, this sketch is all based on a complex literature, but I want to tease out that there is almost certainly a difference between human consciousness, and what is going on at the level of an ant or bee. In the latter case, I would argue that there is no self-awareness or true agency. This is why I claim that it is not appropriate to talk about the altruism of a bee and that of a human as if it were the same thing.

In class, I stated that we can sometimes appeal to evolutionary mechanisms to explain the altruistic behavior of humans; for example, attachment mechanisms that are undoubtedly involved and highly influential in a mother or father expending a significant amount of resources, and at times even putting themselves in harm’s way, to ensure the safety and survival of their children. No one is denying that this happens. However, even examples such as this are far from clear-cut. For instance, a parent may sometimes have an instinctive urge to help their child in distress, but choose to resist it, and do so based on reasoning, such as when a parent knows that by helping their child, their child may miss out on an important opportunity to learn something valuable.

Unlike ants and bees, humans often engage in altruistic behavior based on appeals to reasons. Reasons, it should be noted, are part of a collective symbolic consciousness – involving highly abstract propositions, general facts, arguments, values, and appeals to explicit knowledge. It seems doubtful that an ant is consciously self-aware, that it can project itself in time, imagine possibilities, weigh potential consequences against reasons for action, and then choose its course of action based on those reasons. The behavior of the ant is not deliberate and conscious, but based on evolutionary mechanisms that it did not choose. While this is sometimes the case with humans, it is also the case that our altruistic actions are often the result of deliberate, conscious choices (based on reasons for action).

Let me know where you guys are at with this, and whether you agree, or have a counter-argument to my claim against insect consciousness and agency, and ultimately, against an uncritical comparison of human and non-human forms of altruism.

3 Responses to “Altruism: The Last Bastion of Humanity?”

  1. Mrs. Neutron Says:

    That is a powerful bit of writing Brad. Indeed it is a deeply pessimistic age. What it means to be human, instead of coming more and more into better focus, seems to be just slipping away. Are we so fascinated with our own mechanical handiwork that we long to be somehow one with it? Is there something about us that wants to be reduced to machinery? Is this just another symptom of the consumer culture… some kind of short cut to something else that is unreal, but, more marketable and easier to swallow than the real thing?
    I think we want to be machines Brad. Machines can be fixed, parts can be replaced, and, as machines, nothing is really our fault. Compared to organisms, mechanisms have it made. Freedom is, as you say, hard. It’s like health. Why contemplate it and cultivate it? Take a pill.

    Brad Reply:

    Thanks Mrs. N. Yes, I think you are right about us secretly wanting to be machines… for all the reasons you cite. When I present this hypothesis, people frequently counter that they do not feel pessimistic. But we need not experience a subjective heaviness or depression, only escape discomfort to secure equanimity; and many do in fact take great pleasure in understanding themselves and their world in terms of mechanism; it feels as though they have control and again removes the burden of creation from their shoulders. Most fail to appreciate that to never question life’s meaning, is to presuppose it… in this case the eternal mechanisms of the body… what better way to make values (or their happy negation) everlasting, for all eternity!

    I was listening to an audiobook of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, and stumbled upon a brilliant discussion regarding the Stoics, though it could be easily applied to the modern Universal Darwinists:

    “‘According to nature’ you want to live? O you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! … while you pretend rapturously to read the canon of your law in nature, you want something opposite, you strange actors and self-deceivers! Your pride wants to impose your morality, your ideal, on nature – even on nature – and incomporate them in her; you demand that she should be nature “according to the Stoa,” and you would like all existence to exist only after your own image – as an immense eternal glorification and generalization of Stoicism. For all your love of truth, you have forced yourselves so long, so persistently, so rapidly-hypnotically to see nature the wrong way, namely Stoically, that you are no longer able to see it differently. … But this is an ancient, eternal story: what formally happened with the Stoics still happens today, too, as soon as any philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise.”

    Mrs. Neutron Reply:

    Well said Old Friend.
    Go see “Enders Game”.
    I think you will enjoy it.

    All the Best
    Mrs. N.