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article imageOp-Ed: What is the driving force behind altruism?

By W. Mark Dendy     Nov 19, 2013 in Science
In the classic dichotomy of nature vs. nurture there exists a separation of views among philosophers and biologists as well as psychologists and geneticists.
Looking at social behaviors among animals and among humans from an evolutionary and physiological standpoint, many biologists and geneticists believe that behavior is genetically encoded, particularly instinctive behaviors. Even simple behaviors like the growth of plants in response to light have been demonstrated to be under the control of genes.
Philosophers and psychologists on the other hand, view that as too simplistic – too one dimensional. According to many great thinkers and mind analysts, behavior is much too complex to be explained by genetics or physiology.
Would it be safe to say that a melding of these two schools of thought might provide us with the answer to the age old question – Are we born selfish or selfless?
Charles Darwin (1871) postulated that we are all born with basic needs and instincts to survive, but as social beings, we learn that by aiding others we benefit ourselves.
If social and moral qualities are solely inherited, generous and altruistic behaviors would be eliminated through natural selection.
On the other hand, if the propensity to become altruistic is genetically based and there is a learned component, then we are not simply “programmed” individuals.
Since all organisms have evolved developmental and operational physiological systems that are encoded by genes, we as humans have developed our reasoning abilities to recognize the old adage “give a little, take a little.” Our self-centered behavior directs us to “give” only if it is beneficial to us, ultimately to our survival.
Our purpose to survive is motivated by our inherent desire to reproduce. So what traits make a potential mate more attractive? Among a myriad of physical, emotional, mental, and behavioral characteristics that are examined in the “mating game”, altruism is a desirable trait, particularly when demonstrated in males. Generosity toward others demonstrates not only an individual’s access to resources, but also a certain degree of biological fitness.
A wide range of human behaviors, considered strictly cultural by many (dress, greetings, food etc.), are actually 100% cultural and 100% genetic. Behaviors are cultural in that they are socially learned by observation and interaction in a social group but they are also genetic because their acquisition is dependent on physiological mechanisms of the brain that permits complex, social learning.
The idea of ‘human genes’ that allow for cultural behavior is supported by scientific studies that demonstrate that chimpanzees raised with human children never acquire anything close to adult human behavioral patterns or social norms. Simply put, a species’ genome confers the ability to learn or to not learn certain non-instinctual behaviors.
With regard to humans, behaviors are often culture specific and are as varied as cultures are diverse. However, as our world becomes more specialized, people are becoming more focused on ethics as they relate to narrowing fields of specialized business, medical, legal, and scientific ethics.
The traditional values based on what is good or evil are becoming of less importance. Where does that leave us when faced with a moral dilemma? What determines our action? Some scientists believe that morality may be hardwired in our brains.
Experimental psychologist, Joshua Greene, asking volunteer subjects questions like, “Is it appropriate for you to smother your child in order to save yourself and other villagers?” provided empirical evidence that a person’s brain wrestles with emotions and instinctive responses by examining their brain activity using an MRI.
There seem to be paradoxes between what is morally right (our moral compass) and the direction our instincts drive us (survival).
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Altruism, Genetics, environmental influences, Evolution, Human behavior
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