Altruism is a mysterious yet magical natural phenomenon that bears an apparent irrationality. It is puzzling to ponder just what an evolutionary paradox it is to unconditionally expend one’s own resources to benefit someone else. How does an organism promote the domination of their own genes over their competitors when they waste their time helping, loving, caring?
The following discussion will refer very casually to “genes for”: Obviously, a single gene, a DNA sequence that codes for a set of related protein chains, cannot be held responsible for such a complex behavioural pattern as altruism or selfishness. The “gene for” is in essence a group of genes that are proximal on the same chromosome and whose linkage is favoured by the fact that their respective proteins produce an advantageous phenotype together.
Furthermore, we also need to assume that, since altruism is a behaviour very commonly observed in the animal kingdom, it is, at least partly, a product of genetics in humans too, i.e. that it is not solely a cultural development but a notion that became embedded in culture and religion due to what we carry in our nucleic acids.
To grasp the justification of altruism, we should perceive that, essentially, the real protagonist of natural selection is not the organism but the gene. For a certain gene to establish its place in the nuclei of a population’s cells, the trait for which it codes for should work in the way of maximizing the number of its copies collectively, even if a small number of the individuals that bear it may be led to a disadvantageous position or even death. Think drones and how their life is over after mating with the queen bee: the gene for this behaviour is extremely efficient at remaining immortal in other copies of itself while being a time bomb for the bearing organism and that’s why it persists in nature.
The aforementioned idea facilitates understanding the majority of the evolutionary theories decoding altruism. For example, it is often argued that evolution has led to neural mechanisms that assess the closeness of kin of another individual with us (e.g. our knowledge about them or the way we recognise their face) and so determine the likelihood of us performing an act of altruism to benefit them, just because relatedness represents how likely it is that the gene-for exists in both individuals’ genome. So, our parents are very likely to sacrifice a great amount of their fitness because of how very likely it is that their own gene for sacrifice will be propagated if we survive and breed.
This mechanism has been proposed to explain altruism inside bigger population groups. A gene that exists in all individuals of a group and predisposes an individual to sacrifice for the rest will increase the collective advantage of the group against non-altruistic groups and thus the likelihood of its own propagation. Such a group would initially be open to exploitation by a mutant “selfish gene” until an altruism-egoism equilibrium is reached.
Alternatively, other theorists base their explanation of altruism on the mechanisms of reciprocity; the idea that organisms are more likely to offer their excess of resources in an environment where it is likely they’ll also be found at the receiving end when in need. Still, others argue for the reproductive potential displayed by one’s possession of an excess of resources that is implied by altruism and how that is part of courting behaviour in more complex species.
My source of inspiration for this article is the relationship of suicide to altruism, as the former being at the far end of the latter’s range. This is talking on biological, non-conscious terms. Firstly, we are to assume an adaptionist view-point: we consider that if suicide persists as a trait in the human species, then it must have an evolutionary raison d’ être, it isn’t just there.
Suicide may possibly be a very adverse side effect of our brain’s adaptive evolution of complex sentiments, whose huge survival value far outweighs the harm done to the human population by it. On the other hand, there are many more attempted suicides than successful ones. Evolutionists have argued that the attempted suicide is a display of need, a shout for help, unconsciously aiming at triggering the altruism of other individuals.
According to mathematical models applied to evolutionary theory, individuals with very low reproductive potential that place a burden upon their peers reduce their group’s collective fitness – the group be better adapted without them. Thus, we could decipher suicide like any other altruistic behaviour: the reason it persists could be because it is an advantageous defense mechanism for a gene pool to include a self-destruction gene that is triggered whenever the individual finds itself below a threshold of mating capability. Even when the trait has spread in the population only the few die, the majority survives to breed, the gene marches on.
In this biological exploration of altruism, one of the questions I see beside that of suicide is whether we should lessen the value we attach to the honesty of feelings of affection towards friends, relatives, lovers. Does the great extent to which emotion is determined by genetics make it less true? In the end, wouldn’t you rather live in a world where suicide can be scientifically explained while love cannot?
Petros Fessas is currently serving in the Cyprus National Guard for another year and will read medicine at Cambridge after that
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