Evolutionary Altruism


  • Altruism is when you perform a behavior for someone (to increase their survival) at a cost to yourself (like getting hurt) without any clear benefit to yourself
  • Having altruistic individuals in your group builds social cohesion which can strengthen the group because you have individuals willing to sacrifice themselves to benefit the survival of the group
  • People can sacrifice their time to gather food for the whole group
  • People can put themselves in danger to ensure the survival of a group member

Prosocial Humans and Chimps (Warneken and Tomasello, 2006) PDF

  • Aim: Will humans and captive chimps help someone if given the opportunity?
  • Method: Experimenter makes it clear to the chimp and human that they need help with something
    • The dependent variable was whether the child or human helped the experimenter
  • Results: Human infants help most of the time
  • Chimps help when they understand the goal of the experimenter
  • Conclusion: Helping behavior may be innate and determined by genes which makes evolutionary sense since strong social bonds means groups may be more likely to survive
    • Altruism may have evolved from a common ancestor that both humans and chimps share
  • Evaluation: They only used captive chimps which may have been helping the experimenter (who was their caretaker) because they know the caretaker provides them with food
    • This experiment tells us nothing about how helpful wild chimps are
      • Follow up experiments have shown that wild chimps do help their fellow wild chimps and not just their caretakers

Here are some clips from the Warneken and Tomasello (2006) study

Evaluation of Evolutionary Arguments

  • Testing evolutionary theories of behavior is empirically difficult so researchers may be led astray by confirmation bias
  • We know little, if anything, about Homo sapien behavior - it is purely speculative
    • We can never know how extinct species behaved
  • Disregard the role of culture in shaping behavior
  • There is a tendency for researchers to anthropomorphize animal behavior
    • A famous example is elephants who stand around dead elephants for some time which can be interpreted as the elephants grieving

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