What is Altruism?
The word altruism is purported to be coined by a French philosopher, Auguste Comte. In French, this word is termed altruisme, which is inspired by the Italian word altrui (Latin-alteri), which means ‘someone else’ or ‘other people.’ Altruism is a selfless act of helping others without the expectations of receiving any materialistic or cognitive rewards such as recognition, or praise awards in return. Altruism is not just limited to humans, there are various examples that show the existence of altruistic behaviour in animals too. In this article, we’ll know about the various real-life human and animals examples of altruism and discuss the factors that motivate individuals to show altruism.
Real-Life Example of Altruism
Examples of Altruism in Humans
1. Massai Herders’ Helping Culture
The life of the Massai herders residing on the Serengeti plain, Africa is somewhat difficult. Their livestock such as goats, cattle, and sheep is the only source of income for them. If they lost their livestock for any reason it can jeopardize their survival. Helping is considered an important part of their culture. It is the tradition of the tribe that as long as they are not risking their survival they must help the one in need. It is commonly observed that they eagerly share some of their herds with other people without any expectations of any rewards in return. This tradition of Massai herders is known as ‘osotua.’ Similar altruistic acts have been observed in other areas too, whether it’s Texas cattle ranchers or Fijians. Some theorists state that the motivation behind performing these acts is the unpredictability of the world; nobody knows when any distress could happen and when they may require the help of others. As the survival of the Massai herders is solely based on their livestock, fear of losing their livestock in case of any disease spread that may infect or kill their entire livestock motivates them to help each other in the hope of receiving the help in future.
2. London Terror Attack, 2019
On 29 November 2019, a person named Britson Usman Khan started attacking the people present at a conference in Fishmongers’ Hall, Central London. He stabbed five people with the knives, and two of them died on the spot. Khan threatened the people with a suicide vest, which later turned out to be fake. People were in the terror, and suddenly a civil servant named Darryn Frost who was not carrying any weapon to fight the attacker took a narwhal tusk from the nearby wall display and ran after the Khan. Khan had the knives and the suicide vest, but Frost did not care about his life, instead, he ran after the attacker to defend the other people. The attacker was then shot by the police on the London Bridge. Frost’s act of bravery saved the lives of many people that day.
3. The Crash of Air Florida Flight 90
A domestic passenger flight, ‘Air Florida Flight 90’ was scheduled from the United States to Fort Lauderdale. During its journey, the flight crashed into a bridge constructed over the Potomac River, US. The aircraft consisted of 5 crew members and 74 passengers. After the crash, the aircraft tilted, and the passengers of the aircraft hung to the tail of the plane at nearly 30 degrees in the water. The National Park Service sent a helicopter to rescue the passengers. During this rescue operation, it was observed that a passenger named Arland Williams, whose condition was somewhat better than the other passengers, was helping the other passengers to attach themselves to the rope connected with the rescue helicopter. After the helicopter towed all the other passengers to safety and arrived back to carry William, he was not found there. Arland William was drowned in the freezing water of the Potomac River. He sacrificed his own life for helping the other passengers, this is clearly an example of true altruism. He had the option to save himself first, instead, he chose to help others.
4. Wesley Autry: Subway Superman
On 2 January 2007, a person named Wesley Autrey along with his two daughters was waiting for his train at a subway station in Manhattan. Autrey noticed that another person named Cameron Hollopeter, have a seizure, and he had fallen onto the subway track. Autrey ran for the help of Hollopeter, he used a pen to keep his jaw open (one of the first aid measures for seizure). Autrey then noticed that a train is approaching them. Autrey tried to drag the Hollopeter away from the track, but there was not enough time, so he threw himself over the Hollopeter in the nearby trench between the tracks and firmly held him. The train operator applied the brakes, and they got rescued. In this manner, Autrey saved the life of a stranger that day. This brave act of Autrey made him featured in the list of ‘TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.’ Media and publications called him by various names like ‘The Hero of Harlem,’ ‘Subway Superman,’ and ‘Subway Samaritan.’
Examples of Altruism in Animals
Some people argue that pure altruism can only be observed in humans because animals possess lesser cognitive abilities than humans. Well, one can not deny that humans do possesses high cognitive abilities and the ability to think more abstractly than animals, but several witnessed examples of altruism in animals show that one does not require the high cognition abilities to display the act of altruism. Following are the real-life examples of altruism in animals witnessed by the people.
1. Humpback Whale Saving a Seal
It was observed that eleven whale killers were trying to kill a seal lying on an ice floe. Well, this is nothing strange as the seals are part of the killer whales’ diet, the strange thing was that the two humpback whales came to the rescue of the seal. This thing can not be explained through the kin theory or the evolutionary approach (helping the one that belongs to one’s species to ensure the survival of their genes) as there is no biological association between these two species, i.e., humpback whales and the seals. Also, the killer whales and the humpback whales are natural enemies and generally avoid intermingling. Also, the humpback’s diet does not include seals as it only eats small fishes and tiny shrimps, so there was no point in joining the hunt for the food. But the humpback whales intervened and saved the seal. This act of humpback seals is considered altruism. This incident is described in a scientific journal named Marine Mammal Science.
2. Dolphin Helping Whales
In a 2008 incident, the bottled dolphin was seen helping the whales on a New Zealand beach. These acts are not much observed as dolphins and whales usually do not intermingle. Two pygmy whales were accidentally stranded on that beach and were not able to find their way to the deeper water even after hours of hard work. A bottlenose dolphin looked at them and helped the whales by showing them the way to the deeper waters. According to a local officer present there,
The dolphin managed in a couple of minutes what we had failed to do in an hour and a half.”
These incidents of dolphins helping whales are puzzling as they can not be explained through biological altruism. Dolphins not only help their closely related species, but also the ones with whom they don’t share any biological connection. For example, there are various examples where the dolphins are seen saving the dogs and kids of humans who accidentally fell into the sea.
3. Vampire Bats Feeding Other Members
Vampire bats are the species that feed on the blood of various animals, which include cattle, horses, and pigs. A particular species of bats named Desmodus rotundus are extremely helpful towards the other bats that may or may not belong to their colony. It is seen that these bats regurgitate feasted blood and share it with the other fellow bats who haven’t gotten the meal that day due to any reason. This act of bats ensures the survival of their colony as the bats can not survive for more than 2-3 days without having their meal. To observe their behaviour, research was carried out by some biologists at the University of Maryland. In this study, some of the bats of the roost were provided with food by the observers, while some were kept hungry. The researchers found that the bats who were not provided with any meal by the researchers were given regurgitated meal by the bats who were provided with the meal. The researchers claimed that the hungry bats were not demanding any kind of help from the well-fed bats, yet the well-fed bats provided them with food, this shows that these bats show extreme concern and care for their fellow members.
4. Battle at Kruger
‘Battle at Kruger’ is one of the most popular wildlife videos watched on YouTube. After it was published on YouTube on 2 May 2007, it suddenly went viral and was also featured on various popular platforms and wildlife magazines such as National Geographic, and TIME magazine. This video was awarded as the best Eyewitness video in the YouTube video awards, 2008. In this video, a calf was seen leading a group of buffalos on the side of a river. Four lions were silently keeping an eye on them. After some moments, the group of lions suddenly scared the group of buffalos. Out of fear, the buffalos started running, and the lions took advantage of this and captured the baby buffalo. The lions dragged the baby buffalo into the nearby shallow water. The lion started biting the neck of the baby buffalo to kill it. While the lions were trying to kill the baby buffalo, a pair of crocodiles intervene in the hunt. One of the crocodiles bites the baby, and a tug of war situation began between the crocodiles and lions for the hunt. After some time, the lions finally got successful in bringing the baby buffalo out of the water onto the land. At this moment, the group of buffalos started fighting with the lions to save the baby buffalo. The attack of buffalos was so strong that one of the lions even ran away. Suddenly, the baby buffalo, who was lying on the land stood up and ran towards the group of buffalos. The buffalos got successful in chasing off the rest of the lions too. The way the buffalos’ fight with bravery risking their own life is truly an act of altruism.
5. Mother Octopus’s Altrutic Act for her Offsprings
Some researchers documented the behaviour of a mother octopus belonging to the Graneledone Boreopacifica species for nearly 53 months. The water temperature deep down in the sea is extremely harsh (nearly 3 degrees temperature). The longer the mother octopus protects her eggs by covering them underneath her tentacles the more are the chances of their survival. The researchers claimed that during there every visit in the 53 months of observation, the mother octopus was found to be in the same position. She did not eat whole these months and the colour of her skin has been changed due to weakness and exhaustion. Due to the weakness, the mother octopus died after the offspring hatched. She sacrificed her life for the survival of her offspring.
6. Lulu: The Heroic Pig
A pig named Lulu got popular after its altruistic action of saving its owner’s life. Lulu saw that its owner Jo Ann suffered a cardiac arrest. No one else was present in the house at that moment. Lulu panicked and ran out of the house to look for help. Lulu lay in the middle of a road with heavy traffic until a driver came out of his car to assist Lulu. Lulu took that person to the house, where the person saw Ann’s condition. That person called the ambulance, and the owner was taken to the hospital. Jo Ann undergo heart surgery and was rescued.
7. Rabbit Saved Owner’s Life
A rabbit named Dory is known for saving his owner Simon Steggall’s life. Steggall had a diabetic coma, however, his wife Victoria thought that he just slept after a tiring week of work. Dory interpreted the Steggal’s condition and it vigorously started jumping over the Steggal’s chest and licking him. This behaviour of Dory alerted Victoria, and she finally got aware that his husband had a diabetic coma. She called the ambulance; hence, in this way, Dory saved his owner’s life.
8. Dog Saved a Boy’s Life
There are several examples available that show the altruistic behaviour of the dogs towards their owners. One such example is a dog named Angel saving the life of his owner. A nearly 11-year-old boy was doing some housework in his backyard, and he encountered a cougar. The cougar tried to attack the boy, and suddenly Angel jumped in between. The cougar’s attention then shifted to the Angel. The boy screamed out of fear, and the police present nearby came for help. The cougar got killed while rescuing Angel, and Angel was taken to the hospital and discharged after the minor treatment.
9. Other Examples
Here are a few more examples of how animals and birds show altruistic behaviour towards their and others’ offspring.
Experienced mother elephants take care of the newly born babies of the other new mothers until she gains the energy to take care of its baby. They guide the baby elephants to handle their sensitive trunks and protect them from predators.
Orangutans are considered one of the most caring and kind animals. Unlike other animals, mother orangutans take care of their newly borns and the offspring of the other members of their group for nearly five years. During this period, they teach them all the important skills that are needed for survival as an adult. They are extremely attached to their babies and don’t hesitate to risk their lives for the baby orangutans. They are often seen taking care of the babies of the other animals too that do not belongs to their group or species.
Sand grouse are mostly found in southern Africa. They travel long distances to get the water for their young ones. When they find a fresh lake, they immerse themselves in the water. Their unique feathers with more barbules allow them to keep the water close to themselves throughout their journey from the lake to the nest.
Ants are considered one of the most organized and disciplined creatures. Ants are very concerned for the safety and the wellness of their colony. Worker ants nurse and feed all the offspring present in their colony. In case of any attack, they all tackle the situation with unity.
Monkeys give the warning calls and alert the other members of the group in case of an attack by predators. Doing so, they put their life at risk as their voice grabs the attention of the predators towards themselves. They also help each other in grooming by removing the parasites from each other’s bodies.
Harpagifer Bispinis, a species of fish, found in the Antarctic Peninsula show altruistic behaviour towards babies of the other members of their group. If they find no parents around the eggs of the other fishes, then they take care of the eggs. They protect the eggs from the attacks of predators and also clean the growth of any fungal around the eggs.
Walruses often adopt the babies of the other members of the groups, whose parents are killed by predators.
Why We Show Altruistic Behaviour?
As we have read above in this article, altruism means performing a selfless act for the well-being of others without the expectation of receiving any rewards in return for that help. You might be wondering, why we feel compelled to perform altruistic actions. Why do you donate money to strangers in distress? Why do you share your food with someone, even when you are hungry? Why do some people risk their lives for helping others? There are many more similar acts of kindness that most people do in their daily life without the hope of receiving anything in exchange. These small or big acts of kindness positively impact not only the receiver but also the helper. Researchers have proposed different concepts to explain the motivation behind the people performing altruistic actions. Let us discuss some of the reasons that compel us to indulge in altruism.
Neurological and Biological Perspective of Altruism
The neurological explanation of altruism was first put forward by the two neuroscientists Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman of the LABS-D’Or Hospital Network and National Institute of Health. They published a study in October 2006 in a science journal named Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA. This study highlights that altruistic actions and being compassionate, activates specific areas of the brain that are linked to the reward system, which gives a positive feeling. The experience of these positive feelings reinforces people to indulge in altruism. It was also found that when a person thinks of the interests and benefits of the other person more than its own, a specific region of the brain called the subgenual cortex/septal region gets activated. The subgenual anterior cingulate cortex part of the brain is associated with the learning of altruism. A neuroscientist named Antonio R. Damasio along with his colleagues at the University of Southern California conducted an experiment related to the neurobiology of altruism and published the results in March 2007. The findings of the experiment showed that the subjects who have the damaged ventromedial prefrontal cortex find it difficult to feel empathetic and do not show altruistic behaviour towards others. Several other studies conducted by neuroscientists also reveal the close association between neurobiology and altruism.
Biological Perspective of Altruism
Some evolutionary scientists proposed that altruism is deeply rooted in humans and animals because it ensures the survival of their species. Many examples of altruism in animals can be understood through the biological explanation. For example, some animals give warning calls to their fellow members of the group in case of a predator’s attack to ensure the safety of their group members as they share the same genes. The famous biologist, geologist, and naturalists Charles Darwin referred to altruism as ‘benevolence’ or ‘sympathy.’ According to him,
Altruism is an essential part of social instincts.’
This statement of Darwin is supported by several other studies conducted by the researchers to understand altruism through the evolutionary aspect. According to some experiments, showing altruistic behaviour not only provides cognitive benefits (feeling good about oneself) but also can sometimes provide relief from physical pain.
A highly empathetic person is more likely to show altruistic behaviour. An empath person is someone, who understands the other person’s situation not just from his/her perspective but from the perspective of the other person. An empath feels the pain of the person in the distress by assuming himself/herself in the position of the other person. When the person is feeling the pain of the other person it automatically compels him/her to perform the altruistic actions and relieve the other person from the pain.
Environmental Explanation of Altruism
Whether people are born with the nature of being altruistic or do they learn it from the environment? It has been a topic of discussion among psychologists for several years. Some argue that whether the person will show altruism or not depends upon the genes he/she acquired, while some theorists oppose this statement and argue that people learn altruism through interaction with the environment. An experiment showed that the children who saw other people performing altruistic acts are more likely to become kind and caring than the ones who grew up in an environment where the helping acts or altruism are hardly seen. Hence, the environment has a great impact on the personality of the people, i.e., whether to show altruism or not. The environmental explanation of altruism suggests that even if the person is not born with the natural traits of altruism, he/she can possess altruism through learning. Role modelling can act as a great way of encouraging children to possess kindness and compassion. Various experiments conducted by the researchers show that when the parents model altruism, the children are highly likely to act the same, and eventually become altruistic.
Have you ever felt forced to help someone because that person had helped you in the past? Well, this is what the reciprocating perspective is. According to the researchers, if any person has even done a favour to you in the past then you feel obliged to return that favour by helping that person. For example, suppose you had lent some money from your friend to buy a new property in the past. Now, when your friend is asking for some money to invest somewhere you are highly likely to help him/her because he/she also helped you in the past.
In the 1960s, a British evolutionary biologist, W.D Hamilton proposed that people tend to help those with whom they are closely related. This theory is known as the kin selection theory. This theory suggests that the transmission of genes to the next generation is the motivation behind altruism. Most of the altruism examples can be explained through kin selection theory. For example, the meerkats (small mongoose) nurse and feed the babies of the other members of the group too because they are closely related to all the members of the group, vampire bats provide meals to the hungry bats to ensure the survival of their species, the mother octopus sacrifices her life (as discussed in the example above in this article) for her offsprings, all these altruistic behaviour of the animals can be understood through the kin selection theory.
Some people argue that helping others provides many cognitive benefits to the helper such as releasing anxiety and feeling good about oneself. Some recent studies suggest that people perform altruistic benefits because altruism is emotionally rewarding and emotional rewards can vary from person to person depending upon their cognition and their surroundings. Let us understand through an experiment conducted on some children. There were two groups in this experiment. Group A consisted of some children belonging to Canada, and group B consisted of some children belonging to an island in the South Pacific (Vanuatu). Children of both groups were provided with the eight candies. The researcher told the children of both groups to give one of their candies to a puppet, and the emotional reactions of the children of both the groups were videotaped to analyse the emotional benefits they received in giving their candy to the other. Later, the researcher gave another candy to the children to give to the puppet and again their emotional reactions were recorded. When the children gave their candy to the puppet it is a costly giving, while when the researcher provided them with the candy to give to the puppet it is a non-costly giving. Through the analyses of the recorded emotional reactions, it was found that the children belonging to group A were happier than group B during the costly giving than in the non-costly giving. This experiment shows that people indulge in altruistic or helping acts for emotional rewards. Also, as the children belonging to group A were happier than the children belonging to group B, hence this experiment also highlights the impact of the cultural differences behind the motivation to perform altruistic actions.
Does Altruism Exist in Reality?
The concept of altruism is quite debatable as some researchers argue that altruism can not exist in reality. They suggest that even if the person does not get any materialistic rewards in exchange for help, the motivation behind the healing behaviour could be driven by the other cognitive rewards such as satisfaction, happiness, and contentment that one gets after indulging in the altruistic act. We have discussed several examples of altruism in animals in this article, but some researchers argue that the only reason why the animals help the other individuals is that they have some self-benefit involved in that help. Let’s understand it with an example of the Cuckoo bird. It is generally seen that the cuckoo bird lays her eggs in some other birds’ nests, usually in the nest of the bird whose eggs look similar to her eggs. The cuckoo bird leaves after leaving its eggs in the nest of the host bird. The host bird then took care of the eggs of the cuckoo bird like its own eggs. Some may say the host bird shows altruistic acts by looking after the eggs of some other bird, and some may say that the host bird may not be able to distinguish the cuckoo eggs from its eggs. However, some researchers claim that the cuckoo bird does come back from time to time to check her offspring whether they are there or not. If the cuckoo bird finds her offspring there then she leaves the nest, but if she finds that her offspring is not present there, then she kills the eggs or babies of the host bird and also destroys its nest. This shows that the only reason the host bird took care of the babies of the cuckoo bird is to protect her nest and eggs from the cuckoo bird.
According to the kin selection theory of Hamilton, humans and animals are born with the tendency to show altruism. We tend to offer help when we see someone in need. Well, genetics do play a greater role in deciding whether to help or not but other factors like parenting, society, and the environment also play a crucial role in learning altruism. For example, you may help a stranger who is asking for a route to a particular destination but you will hesitate to lend him/her money; you are more likely to lend money to your family member or close relative. According to a 1992 published report on the issues of Ethology and Sociobiology (based on the data collected from the various California estates), it was found that on average biological children receive a larger share of the inheritances than the children who have been adopted. Even though there are some examples that question the existence of altruism in reality, there are several examples of altruism shown by both animals and humans as we have read in this article. One should take into account that, doing someone’s help might have some self benefits, but if the cost involved in the act of helping outweigh the benefits, then that action of a person is surely an act of altruism.