Final:A Look into Human Altruism

This research topic submitted by Matt Russell Julie Bayer on 5/6/98 .

Humans go out of their way to perform favors for family, friends and even strangers all the time. Humans may even go so far as to risk their life. What could possibly explain such a phenomenon in such a complex species? The term altruism has been given to specify such acts. Altruism entails a situation when the actor performs a favor for a victim, and expects nothing back in return. This form of self-sacrifice contradicts evolutionary law though, and as a result, has raised a lot of debate between people of many different disciplines. Genetics and Psychologists, alike both agree that society is the source of such action, however debate arises after that. We will explore the possibility of the solution being a combination of both genetics and culture. This takes into account many sides of the argument and attempts to find a happy medium. We will also explore the cultural influence that religion has on people, universally. The morals and values which people take from their religion may have an important role in their altruistic behaviors.

Humans often go out of their way to do favors for others. Some may wonder why they feel the need to help out a complete stranger. However, they have probably not put as much thought into it as such people as Wilson, Hamilton, Campbell, Trivers, Dawkins, Haldane, and many others. All of these people have contributed to a debate that has gone on for a very long time, the debate surrounding the topics of human altruism. Topics of the debate include: whether or not humans can behave altruistically and truly expect nothing for themselves; how humans have evolved to become so different from all other species (concerning their social habits); what has influenced humans to act this way; and finally what fields or issues are most important for research. However, despite such efforts of such great men and women, universal answers to these questions have yet to be discovered.
Some refer to human altruism as "the great paradox." Others, like E.O. Wilson, call it the "culmination mystery of all biology", and two undergraduate students like ourselves, will probably not find the answers either. However, in this paper, we will test our hypothesis, which we developed concerning human altruism, and compare it to other existing theories. We hypothesized that human altruism is a result of a combination of genetic and cultural influences. This made sense because if altruism is a universal phenomenon, then it must be genetically connected to the hard wiring of humans. However, we also believed that cultures greatly affect the extent to which humans of different societies act. A culture establishes unwritten guidelines for a society to follow, concerning values and morals. We decided that a good way to measure altruism in our society would be to bring religion into our study. This would help us to conclude whether people looked to religion for their morals and values. We figured that religion would not only be a common characteristic with all of our subjects, but it would also represent a universal form of cultural influence. (Wendell, 1979)
Our early research provided us with many different definitions and explanations for human altruistic behavior. We realized that before testing our hypothesis concerning cultural and genetic influences, first we had to establish what human altruism was. Even this was highly debatable in our findings. We also found that there was further debates concerning technicalities of human altruism. However, much of this was not applicable to our thesis, so we had to leave it out of our paper. It would have taken up too much space, so instead we narrowed the findings down to the ones that related more to our argument.
Just the fact that humans do indeed perform acts of kindness to other organisms (related and unrelated) distinguishes humans from all other living organisms. The most comparable organisms to humans in terms of their unique survival tool are social insects, which also demonstrate extreme social interdependence. Insects, like humans, demonstrate properties such as cohesiveness, altruism and cooperation, which benefit the survival of the species tremendously. But as E.O. Wilson points out, the higher the degrees of speciation and complexity, the less the species demonstrate such qualities. Humans, somehow, broke out of the mold; they have, unlike most other species, both a complex social existence and a high degree of specialization and complexity. (Campbell, 1972)(Wendell, 1979)
A significant factor which differentiates humans from insects is due to the fact that their "behavioral dispositions are genetically determined."(Campbell, ) Many social insects sacrifice their lives for the good of their kin, but they also lack the ability to reproduce. Hence, by sacrificing their body, they are helping to preserve their inclusive fitness in their relatives, which they save.
Another factor which many people question is why social insects, such as the bee, only sacrifice their lives for other bees who share most of the same genes (relatives and kin), while humans often sacrifice their lives for others who do not. This phenomenon cannot be explained by Darwin or Hamilton's theory of "natural selection" or "inclusive fitness." Darwin's theory would instead favor competition and an egoistic, self-preserving behavior instead. This unique tendency is not found anywhere else in the natural world. What usually happens, is that when the degree of kinship of individuals in a society decreases, so does the degree of altruistic behavior. This would explain why ants would have such effective social groups because most ants are 2/3 related. However, with humans this is not always the case. There for, humans demonstrate an even greater extreme of social interdependency than any other organism. (Hoffman, 1981)(Wendell, 1979)
The next step would be to assume that if genetic selection does not support the survival of such an organism that seems to ignore its genetic selfish tendencies, there must be something else involved which counters natural selection. What we found were basically two sides, the "biological altruism" side and the "social altruism" side. However, when looked at closely, both agreed that altruism was a cultural product.(Campbell, 1972)
The biologists, geneticists, and sociobiologists described it as "the interaction of the genetic information with a particular set of environing circumstances, including culture and other nonrandom and enduring factors…" With this, they also developed three mechanisms which stressed the requirements of group living: group selection, kin selection, and reciprocal altruism. All three of these had the commonality of inclusive fitness and thus supported biological altruism.(Wendell, 1979)(Hoffman, 1981)
Having established that social and cultural influences counter the role of the genetically transmitted disposition, other psychologists totally rejected all aspects of genetically instructed behavior. They saw its usefulness only to create an individual capable of receiving passed down information, socially. They believed that "man is distinctive in the degree to which sociocultural means of information transmission have replaced DNA, the genetic material."(Klopfer, 1968)
However, another group of psychologists saw the two sides relating in more of a connection. They, on the other hand, believed that "genetic fitness is entirely compatible with and indeed may require, a behavioral mechanism for altruism."(Hoffman, 1981) This perspective challenged our theory and made us think about how much we thought that the hard wiring of humans was involved in the process of human altruism. We agreed more and more with this theory as we researched.
Psychologist, Peter Klopfer presented a very strong case. In fact, it was this case that eventually persuaded us to believe that humans behave altruistically more as a result of culture than genetic hardwiring. Campbell pointed out that "the evolved socially induced dispositions must have directly opposed the selfish dispositional tendencies continually selected for by the concurrent biological evolution."(Campbell, 1972)
For any natural selection to occur, a whole system must be chosen. Specific genes are not sorted through to form the perfect, sustainable creature. Instead, a whole system or body, including "behavioral responses…to ecological pressures" must survive to pass on its' genetic material. Therefore, physical traits cannot be thought of as the most important aspects for survival. (Hoffman, 1981)
Theorizing that both the genotypes and the culturetypes must exist together brought the research to its next topic-religion. As Wendell stated, "religions work to coordinate the coadaption between the basic values of genotypes and cuturetypes."(Wendell, 1979) Historically, religions should be looked at as products of the same selection processes, which our genes went through. The myths, which make up every religion were made to explain the mysteries of life and the ones that exist today made it through an elimination process. Today, religion plays a very important role in establishing values and morals all over the world. These values and morals often set the standards which people follow for things like altruism. In some religions, like Nibbanic Buddhism, attributes like sympathy and empathy (two emotions which often times cause a person to act altruistically) are considered "very desirable attributes and must be sought… if man is to achieve nirvana."(Cohen, 1972) Campbell was one of the first persons to give a "scientifically based account of religion's role in human evolution."(Wendell, 1979)
Finally, the last topic, which we encountered in our research of our thesis, was whether altruism could really exist without any underlying motive of gratification for the Self. We related this to religion in questioning whether or not, for example, if the Buddhists who acts altruistically to help someone is actually motivated by their own desire to reach Nirvana when they die. This extra motive could be on an unconscious level, and questions if the person is really acting solely on the welfare of another. There was an immense amount of information, and we basically concluded that it was impossible for someone to determine either way. Cohen stated that it is impossible to "tell if the desire to give my efforts, time or resources is not in terms of real or imagined rewards rather than in terms of some innate helping or altruistic impulse." He went on to explain that this would never be known objectively because a person cannot climb into someone else's head; some one will always know if giving produces some feeling of satisfaction, but one will never know if someone else feels the same way.

The first step in our project was to get a clear understanding of the on going debate surrounding the topic of human altruistic behavior. There are many different views on what influences the altruistic component of human nature. Many of them are very convincing and supported with strong points. This made it essential for us to try and get a strong foundation consisting of ideas from a variety of different sources. We took the stand, not different from that of many others who have researched this topic, that human altruism stems from both genetic and cultural influences. Books concerning the topic of human altruism were really easy to find.
The next step that we took was to devise a survey that could bring results either supporting or disproving our thesis. The survey we finally used was the second that we created because of the difficulty in developing questions that could distinguish between cultural and genetic influence. The survey we used included the following questions:
1) Are you Male or Female?
2) How old are you?
3) Some say that human action is ultimately selfish and that we act altruistically solely on the purpose to gain something in return. Do you agree? Explain.
4) Others say that humans have the ability to perform selfless acts of altruism with no intent of receiving something in return. Do you agree? Explain.
5) What religion are you?
6) If you do associate yourself with a religion, do you feel that the personal rewards of it lead you to act altruistically towards others? If yes, how big of a role does it play on a scale from 1 to 5?
7) If you do not associate yourself with a religion, what motivates you to act altruistically?
8) Are you more inclined to act altruistically (1) to friends over family (2) family over friends or (3) family equal to friends?

9) Are there any groups or associations that you would be willing to risk your life for (religion, ethnicity, etc..)? If yes, name them and tell why.

The survey was passed out randomly at Buzz coffee shop to thirty individuals. Through this survey we hoped to get an insight on the cultural influences that lead people to towards altruist behavior. Our emphasize on religion was an attempt to analyze what we considered one of the moral universal forms of cultural influence. We wanted to see how much of an influence that the personal rewards offered through religions had on the subjects behavior.
The one question on our survey, which refer to who the subjects were more inclined to act altruistically towards, was targeted for an analysis of the kin selection theory associated with genetic influences. We were not relying on quantitative results, so it was important to try and develop questions that would result in qualitative data worth interpreting.
Out of all the questions, we only used numbers three, four, five, seven and eight. The others did not seem relevant to our study when it came time to analyze the results. We used Stat-veiw to run Chi-square and t-tests on our results, which will be discussed later in the results section.

The main objective of our survey was to try and uncover the various influences on our subject's behavior to try and get a clearer understanding of human altruism. After researching the work of many people who specialize in the field of trying to answer the many questions associated with our topic, we went into our personal research not expecting any definite or concrete findings. What we did find was exactly that; no definite answers.
Kin Selection is a major part in many of the theories that support the genetic root of human altruism. We tested the kin selection theory by asking our subjects who they were more inclined to act altruistically towards. The results were surprising different then what we expected(figure 1). We posed that people would indeed favor family over others, which would have supported the genetic side of our hypothesis. We were wrong!

We then compared the amount of people who thought that human behavior was ultimatly "selfless" or "selfish" to the totals of people who chose "family over friends," "friends over family," or "equal." We associated the "selfless" category with genetic influence because of willingness to sacrifice for others including family. Our theory about this was that the people who thought human nature could be selfless would favor "family over friends" because of genetic root that favors the survival of the gene. What we found was, out of the eight people who did not answer "equal," six did choose family. Despite the insignifigance of the results, we ran a t-test and got a value below .05 which meant the test as a whole was of significant correlation. This really did not tell us anything to either support or reject our overall thesis.
The majority of our results were split right down the middle. The results of the people that identified themselves as religious, were almost identical to those that did not. Of the nineteen people labeled religious, only five of them said that religion played a major role in their behavior. This statistic could have had a meaning to it, but we did not have anything to compare with. Testing the genetic influence on behavior proved more difficult then imagined. We did run more tests, which are included in the back section, but the truth is, none of them really helped in our research.

Darwin's initial theory of "natural selection" at first might not appear to fit in with a characteristic such as altruism. However, with such a unique subject like human altruism, there does not seem to be any concrete answer for explaining it. Since Darwin, many people, from all different kinds of disciplines have attempted to solve this "culmination mystery of all biology." When researching all the different solutions, one might feel very overwhelmed. Half way through our research we began to question whether or not humans even have the capacity to act altruistically.
However, now that we have learned a number of different perspectives, we have a much better feel about all the dynamics that could make up altruistic behavior. We feel very confident to state that our initial hypothesis of whether human altruism was cultural or genetic, was the same that we came to after our research was completed and we tallied our surveys. A combination of both factors (culture and gene make up) seems to be the most reasonable conclusion. Having said this, we did run into some problems along the way that would have helped to make our conclusion even more accurate.
Incorporating religion turned out to be very helpful for us. It narrowed our study down to one universal aspect, which plays a major role in determining peoples values. There were some downfalls to it too though. First, we did not get a very wide variety of religions. Secondly, the age group we interviewed was very small. Only looking at one set of age groups may have affected our measure of how important religion was to each person. Thirdly, we only interviewed from one town and even that percentage of people was small. Next time, to correct these problems we would need a larger group to survey, who was of varying ages and who lived all over the world. We wanted to prove if altruism was universal, and the only way that this is accomplished is by conducting interviews all over the world. Finally, one problem that we found as we got our surveys back was that many people left answers blank, with no explanations. This shrunk our already small sample group.
More problems we faced included all the research we had to fit in such a small amount of space. As a result of there being so many points of views, we used many different sources. Another problem was trying to form questions to test each definition of altruism. Hypothetical situations are unreliable compared to actual tests of human behavior.

Works Cited
Batson, Daniel C. "The Altruism Question" Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
New Jersey, 1991.

Cambell, David T. "On the Genetics of Altruism and Counter-Hedonic Components in
Human Culture" Journal of Social Issues. v 28 1978, pg 24.

Cohen, Ronald. "Altruism: Human Control or What? Journal of Social Issues.
v 28 1972, pg 28.

Hoffman, Martin L. "Is Altruism a part of human nature?" Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology. v 40, 1981. pg 121.

Hunt, Morton. "The Compassionate Beast" William Morrow and Company, Inc.
New York, 1990.

Klopfer, Peter. "From Ardrey to Altruism" Behavioral Science. v 13 1988, pg 399.

Wendell, Bushoe Ralph. "Religion's Role in Human Evolution: The Missing Link…"
Zygon. v 14 1979, pg 135.

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