Altruism: Nature or Nurture?


There’s been a great deal of scientific interest lately in the human quality of altruism, the idea that we might act in the best interests of others and not of ourselves. Scientifically speaking, this seems to fly in the face of “selfish gene” models and leads some to question whether or not the quality’s existence is a counter-proof to the Theory of Evolution. Others say that there is a subtle genetic reason for it. Still others base its origin in social evolution.

A new study out of California claims to have answered the question of the origin of human altruism:

“In all likelihood, it is evolutionary forces acting on socially learned behavior (culture), a group of UC Davis researchers argue in a paper published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The group, led by Adrian Bell, a doctoral candidate in ecology, based its conclusion on estimates of the degree of genetic and cultural variation found between groups versus within groups. Natural selection acts and depends on variation.

‘Our numbers show … and we argue that socially learned beliefs, or our culture as we define it here, is a much better candidate to explain the pro-social tendencies that humans have in large-scale societies,’ Bell says. The main reason for that is that cultural differences between groups are much greater than genetic differences.”

Read the full article here.

Interesting. So, does this mean it’s not genetic? If so then we’re able to say that social behavior in humans is able to override genetic predisposition?

So nurture is the new natural?

(I wish I understood evolutionary biology better…)

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Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 Comment

  1. Amy Real Coultas+ says

    I keep trying to find a story I swear I heard on public radio this week regarding the difference between a ‘study of altruistic tendencies’ and ‘real world’ studies. In the first, researches look at the amount participants are willing to give away (when asked) after having been given $10 ($3-4!); in the second, observing how often people just open up their wallets on the street and start giving out money (not very often!). I couldn’t listen to the whole thing and it’s been driving me crazy that I can’t even remember what show it was on.
    Of course, I’m pretty sure the story was only on because it’s pledge week 🙂

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