Friday, April 11, 2014

Can Humans Be Truly Altruistic?

What is Altruism?

Altruism is any voluntary helping behavior designed for the benefit of other people and without regard for the self. Picture a man running late for work. An old woman carrying a basket full of apples accidentally tripped, lost control of her balance, and dropped the basket of apples. Without hesitation, the man stopped and helped the old woman pick up the scattered apples. The man is said to be altruistic. Can you think of other people who would do the same? What if it takes 10 seconds to pick up one apple and return it in the basket? What if there are 60 apples all in all, and picking them all up would take you roughly 10 minutes, not to mention cause you a searing back pain? Still gonna help that old lady? What if we raise the bar higher to 180 apples so that you spend roughly 30 minutes helping that hag? How about 240 apples for 40 minutes? 360 apples for a total of one hour helping that stupid, good-for-nothing lady? Or what if it's your last chance to prove your worth to your boss? Would you still stop and help? As we go higher up the scale, less and less people are capable of demonstrating altruism, and more and more people are appearing to be self-serving. If you still answered "yes" to the last question, then Congratulations! You could be in the top ten finalists for Extinction.

Darwin says you're supposed to be dead.

Yet altruism does not seem to appear only in humans. In fact, the famous Charles Darwin himself had trouble explaining why sterile worker bees who work for the Queen Bee's offspring continue to live. Because they are unable to reproduce, they have no reason to care for the Queen Bee's offspring, and they should be extinct. Even if Darwin was not able to concoct a convincing explanation for this unusual phenomenon, Evolutionary Psychologists today believe that the problem of sterile worker bees can best be explained by the theory of kin selection. They say that Inclusive Fitness, the fact that the worker bees are genetically related to the Queen Bee and her offspring, accounts for the worker bees' behavior. Indeed, going back to the introductory example, if the old lady (who accidentally scattered her apples along the road) was your mother, chances are you're gonna help her pick the apples no matter what. Heck, you can even sacrifice your life for her sake if needed. (At least most do.)

But then again, you're still alive.

Although it appears that the Theory of Kin Selection solved the altruistic riddle, it remains incapable of explaining altruism directed towards strangers. This is where Sociocultural Psychologists step up. They say, altruism is a cultural value, and that it is expressed in different forms and varying degrees across cultures. The reason why people have the urge to let go of themselves and help other people is, according to the Sociocultural Approach, because culture teaches its members to be caring and loving toward each other. Thus, in this view, human connection is not only genetic, but also cultural.

So are you going to be extinct?

One good way to reconcile the Evolutionary Psychology Approach and the Sococultural Approach is to view culture in terms of an evolved human activity. In this light, human beings evolved from preying against each other to sharing resources and living communally to preserve humanity as a species. We can look back at history and see that the first civilizations emerged when nomadic tribes settled together and formed a government. Today, nations are significantly well off than struggling tribes. Furthermore, altruism is generally directed towards children more than adults, as the youth is said to be the future of the society. It is possible, therefore, that human beings achieve reproductive success better with social order glued by a cultural value like Altruism.

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