There are two separate ways of thinking concerning altruism and it’s relationship to evolutionary biology. One is the belief that altruism is a big part of society as a whole and it is the best way to promote survive of a population as a whole. Darwin, in The Descent of Man, says that sometimes a member of a group may act selflessly as long as it works out in the long term for the group as a whole (Darwin). This is the theory that I believe to be more acceptable, but I will outline those reasons once I talk about the opposing point of view.
This theory was reputed by many, including George C. Williams of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He believed that “selection at the level of the group was insignificant when compared with individual selection (Lewin 1996). Many conservatives and libertarians believe that individuals are 100 percent self-interested. If they do anything for the common good, or participate in any type of group behavior, it is only because they ultimately have their own interest at heart. The only reason that individuals serve the customers while they are at work is because a paycheck eventually rewards this altruism. Even volunteer work and gifts to charity are for selfish reasons. People do this volunteer work to win the praise, admiration and gratitude of others. Conservatives and libertarians base their economic theories on the assumption that humans are really pure individualists (Leahy, 1993).
Even with what I mentioned above, I believe that people really can be altruistic. Families are an example of a group that is deeply altruistic. There are many sacrifices that parents make for the good of their children. A few of the sacrifices that I thought of are as follows:
? The sometimes debilitating or fatal complications from pregnancy and sex.
? Parents are always willing to consume less in order for their child to have as much of something as they want.
Although some people may argue that what I am about to outline are acts that individuals perform in order to gain personal rewards down the line, I believe that these acts are done in an altruistic spirit. Here are the examples of altruism that I see taking place in society in general:
? Donations to charitable groups.
? Volunteer work done in the community.
I believe that altruism is actually a practice that can help to promote group survival. Reciprocal altruism is different from altruism within a family (Lewin). Reciprocal altruism means helping someone out who needs it, with the understanding that the favor may be returned at some distant, unspecified date in the future, whenever the altruist happens to need it (Lewin). The return favor may not even come from the original recipient, but someone else entirely. This general practice seems to promote the survival of a group as a whole.
This trait was probably crucial in hunting and gathering societies. Not even the best hunter could count on bringing home a large amount of prey every day. Changing conditions and sheer luck in the fields would have resulted in considerable variation in the amount of food that the early hunters would bring home each day. An excellent hunter and gatherer might be able to bring home a large amount of food on average, but maybe not every day. Reciprocal altruism would have smoothed over the uncertainty of finding food. A hunter that had a particularly good day might share it with his friends, knowing that the favor would be returned whenever he had a bad day. Others would take care of a sick friend, know that they favor would be returned anytime they grew sick. The survival of such a group would be enhanced, and its individual members would enjoy greater reproductive success.
Critics might argue that such group behavior is impossible, or that it could never get started. There is actually a good reason for this behavior and that is that altruism would maximize a group’s numbers. The best survival strategy is to keep the population of an area as large as possible but still within the land’s carrying capacity. If a population is taught the practice of altruism when they are young, then if someone in the tribe falls sick, the others will help them to get better. Helping a fellow tribe member through a sickness would directly and immediately increase each member’s chances for survival, since it would keep the group’s numbers, and the strength derived from those numbers, as high as possible.
I feel that altruism is something that is truly felt by most humans and it is the best possible way for a population to sustain themselves at a high population level. Everyone being “in it for themselves” is the way that a lot of people live, but it is not the best method of survival population. I think that the arguments that I presented here will be able to convince you of the position that I have taken concerning altruism and it’s relationship with evolutionary biology.