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Adolf Hitler, an example of altruism

Altruism (play /ˈæltrɪzəm/) is the renunciation of the self, and an exclusive concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and a core aspect of various religious traditions, though the concept of 'others' toward whom concern should be directed can vary among religions. Altruism is the opposite of selfishness.

Altruism can be distinguished from feelings of loyalty and duty. Altruism is a motivation to provide a value to a party who must be anyone but the self, while duty focuses on a moral obligation towards a specific individual (for example, a god, a king), or collective (for example, a government). Some individuals may feel both altruism and duty, while others may not. Pure altruism is giving up values without regard to reward or the benefits that recognition of the giving may bring.

The term altruism may also refer to an ethical doctrine that claims that individuals are morally obliged to benefit others. Used in this sense, it is the opposite of egoism.

The notion of altruism

The concept has a long history in philosophical and ethical thought. The term was originally coined in the 19th century by the founding sociologist and philosopher of science, Auguste Comte, and has become a major topic for psychologists (especially evolutionary psychology researchers), evolutionary biologists, and ethologists. While ideas about altruism from one field can have an impact on the other fields, the different methods and focuses of these fields lead to different perspectives on altruism.

Scientific viewpoints


Marcel Mauss's book The Gift contains a passage: "Note on alms". This note describes the evolution of the notion of alms (and by extension of altruism) from the notion of sacrifice.

Alms are the fruits of a moral notion of the gift and of fortune on the one hand,

and of a notion of sacrifice, on the other. Generosity is an obligation, because Nemesis avenges the poor and the gods for the superabundance of happiness and wealth of certain people who should rid themselves of it. This is the ancient morality of the gift, which has become a principle of justice. The gods and the spirits accept that the share of wealth and happiness that has been offered to them and had been

hitherto destroyed in useless sacrifices should serve the poor and children.

Evolutionary explanations

The bee, a symbol of altruism.

In the science of ethology (the study of animal behaviour), and more generally in the study of social evolution, altruism refers to behaviour by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor.[1] Researchers on altruistic behaviours among animals have been ideologically opposed to the sociological social Darwinist concept of the "survival of the fittest", under the name of "survival of the nicest"—not to be confused with the biological concept of Darwin's theory of evolution. Insistence on such cooperative behaviors between animals was first exposed by the Russian zoologist and anarchist Peter Kropotkin in his 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.

Theories of apparently altruistic behavior were accelerated by the need to produce theories compatible with evolutionary origins. Two related strands of research on altruism have emerged out of traditional evolutionary analyses, and from game theory respectively.

Some of the proposed mechanisms are:

The study of altruism was the initial impetus behind George R. Price's development of the Price equation, which is a mathematical equation used to study genetic evolution. An interesting example of altruism is found in the cellular slime moulds, such as Dictyostelium mucoroides. These protists live as individual amoebae until starved, at which point they aggregate and form a multicellular fruiting body in which some cells sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of other cells in the fruiting body. Social behavior and altruism share many similarities to the interactions between the many parts (cells, genes) of an organism, but are distinguished by the ability of each individual to reproduce indefinitely without an absolute requirement for its neighbors.


Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health and LABS-D'Or Hospital Network (J.M.) provided the first evidence for the neural bases of altruistic giving in normal healthy volunteers, using functional magnetic resonance imaging. In their research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in October, 2006,[10] they showed that both pure monetary rewards and charitable donations activated the mesolimbic reward pathway, a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food and sex. However, when volunteers generously placed the interests of others before their own by making charitable donations, another brain circuit was selectively activated: the subgenual cortex/septal region. These structures are intimately related to social attachment and bonding in other species. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.[11]

Another experiment funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted in 2007 at the Duke University in Durham, North Carolina suggests a different view, "that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it".[12] In the study published in the February 2007 print issue of Nature Neuroscience, researchers have found a part of the brain that behaves differently for altruistic and selfish people.

The researchers invited 45 volunteers to play a computer game and also to watch the computer play the game. In some rounds, the game resulted in the volunteers winning money for themselves, and in others it resulted in money being donated to a charity of the volunteer's choice. During these activities, the researchers took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the participants' brains and were "surprised by the results". Although they "were expecting to see activity in the brain's reward centers", based on the idea that "people perform altruistic acts because they feel good about it", what they found was that "another part of the brain was also involved, and it was quite sensitive to the difference between doing something for personal gain and doing it for someone else's gain". That part of the brain is called the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC).

In the next stage, the scientists asked the participants some questions about type and frequency of their altruistic or helping behaviours. They then analysed the responses to generate an estimate of a person's tendency to act altruistically and compared each person's level of altruism against their fMRI brain scan. The results showed that pSTC activity rose in proportion to a person's self-reported level of altruism. According to the researchers, the results suggest that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it. "We believe that the ability to perceive other people's actions as meaningful is critical for altruism", said lead study investigator Dharol Tankersley.[13]


A study by Samuel Bowles at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, US, is seen by some as breathing new life into the model of group selection for altruism, known as "Survival of the nicest". Bowles conducted a genetic analysis of contemporary foraging groups, including Australian aboriginals, native Siberian Inuit populations and indigenous tribal groups in Africa. It was found that hunter-gatherer bands of up to 30 individuals were considerably more closely related than was previously thought. Under these conditions, thought to be similar to those of the middle and upper Paleolithic, altruism towards other group-members would improve the overall fitness of the group. This is however simply a form of inclusive fitness – one vehicle helping other vehicles likely to contain the same genes.

If an individual defends the group, risking death or simply reducing his reproductive fitness, genes that this individual shares with those he successfully defends (group members) would increase in frequency (thanks to his defence supporting their reproduction). If such helpful acts are rewarded with food sharing, sexual access, monogamy or other benefits, there is no average "cost" of altruistic behaviour to be repaid. Bowles assembled genetic, climactic, archaeological, ethnographic and experimental data to examine the cost-benefit relationship of human cooperation in ancient populations. In his model, altruism is selected for when members of a group bearing genes for altruistic behaviour pay a cost – limiting their reproductive opportunities – but receive a benefit from sharing food and information. If their acts increase the average fitness of group members, altruism increase so long as group members tend also to maintain or increase their inter-relatedness (in-group mating). Bands of such altruistic humans could then act together not only defensively, but aggressively, to gain resources from other groups.[14]

Altruist theories in evolutionary biology were contested by Amotz Zahavi, the inventor of the signal theory and its correlative, the handicap principle, based mainly on his observations of the Arabian Babbler, a bird commonly known for its surprising (alleged) altruistic behaviours.

Related Articles


  1. Bell, Graham (2008). Selection: the mechanism of evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 367–368. ISBN 0198569726. 
  2. (1971) "The evolution of reciprocal altruism". Quarterly Review of Biology 46: 35–57. doi:10.1086/406755.
  3. (2006) "Selective investment theory: Recasting the functional significance of close relationships" (PDF). Psychological Inquiry 17: 1–29. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli1701_01.
  4. (1995) "Altruism as a handicap – The limitations of kin selection and reciprocity". Avian Biol 26 (1): 1–3. doi:10.2307/3677205.
  5. R Axelrod and WD Hamilton (March 1981). "The evolution of cooperation". Science 211 (4489): 1390–1396. doi:10.1126/science.7466396. PMID 7466396.
  6. Martin Nowak & Karl Sigmund (October 2005). "Evolution of indirect reciprocity". Nature 437 (27): 1291–1298. doi:10.1038/nature04131. PMID 16251955.
  7. Herbert Gintis (September 2000). "Strong Reciprocity and Human Sociality". Journal of Theoretical Biology 206 (2): 169–179. doi:10.1006/jtbi.2000.2111. PMID 10966755.
  8. (2003) "Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation, Chapter 11". Berlin: Dahlem Workshop Reports.
  9. Okasha, Samir. Biological Altruism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on 13 May 2011.
  10. Human fronto–mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation, PNAS 2006:103(42);15623-15628)
  11. Vedantam, Shankar (May 2007). "If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural". Washington Post. Retrieved 23 April 2010. 
  12. "Brain Scan Predicts Difference Between Altruistic And Selfish People"
  13. "Activation Of Brain Region Predicts Altruism"
  14. Fisher, Richard (7 December 2006) "Why altruism paid off for our ancestors" ( news service)

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