Saving Our Planet With Reciprocal Altruism


 “The only choice left to us is to decide how much worse we are willing to let things get. We still have time to save, or restore, a large part of the gentle and benevolent environment that has made our lives possible. We can’t, however, do it easily. We can’t do it at all without at the same time making considerable social, economic and political changes in our world. These changes go far beyond what we can accomplish as individuals”. ~ Frederik Pohl

We humans like to believe that we are altruistic by nature. In fact we earnestly collect evidence through experiments that tell us that human altruism is unique in the animal world.

Altruistic: 1. loving others as oneself. 2. Behaviour that promotes the survival chances of others at a cost to one’s own. 3. Self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. Universal Dictionary

The truth is, while we may be altruistic, we are neither unique, nor is our altruism common. Both animals and humans are often kind and selfless. Humans are seldom altruistic, and altruism exists abundantly in nature. In fact “sympathy” or “benevolence,” as Darwin called altruism, is “an essential part of the social instincts.”

Altruism in nature – Besides rivers and forests that keep giving selflessly without any expectations of returns, here are a few examples of altruism in nature: Male fiddler crabs with huge pincers fight over a burrow but never crush each other’s bodies. Rattlesnakes wrestle without biting each other. Both these creatures refrain from violence when settling conflicts. The Bonobo, one of the two species of chimpanzee, helps strangers without being asked to. Sterile ants show selfless behaviour while protecting their colonies from dangerous predators.

The Stanford philosophical dictionary says that – Altruistic behaviour is common throughout the animal kingdom, particularly in species with complex social structures. For example, vampire bats regularly regurgitate blood and donate it to other members of their group who have failed to feed that night, ensuring they do not starve. In numerous bird species, a breeding pair receives help in raising its young from other ‘helper’ birds, who protect the nest from predators and help to feed the fledglings. Vervet monkeys give alarm calls to warn fellow monkeys of the presence of predators, even though in doing so they attract attention to themselves, increasing their personal chance of being attacked. In social insect colonies (ants, wasps, bees and termites), sterile workers devote their whole lives to caring for the queen, constructing and protecting the nest, foraging for food, and tending the larvae. Such behaviour is maximally altruistic: sterile workers obviously do not leave any offspring of their own — so have personal fitness of

zero — but their actions greatly assist the reproductive efforts of the queen.

While it is true that we humans are capable of generosity, nurturance, care, compassion, and altruistic love, and we know of altruistic behaviour amongst humans who give unselfishly, act kindly, participate in charity work, give their time and money to causes, are kind to animals and give others an organ such as a kidney to extend another person’s life. Yes, there are many other examples of selflessness; there are some people who risk their lives to save persons not known to them – from fires, from crimes and criminals and from natural disasters, but, I submit, that though there are altruistic humans, these are exceptional humans. They are Heroic altruists. There are not many of them.

Despite our claim to altruistic behaviour, we are wantonly destroying Earth’s resources. We have endangered the survival of other species resulting in the decrease in the number of mammal species, bird species, the number of amphibian species and possibly the number of plant species.

Human interference has caused extinctions of species through the destruction and the harvesting of forests. We have laid bare forests to tillage – to grow grain and vegetables, and for construction and grazing. “One of the main causes of desertification has been removal of vegetation leaving the soil unprotected. Dry soil surfaces then blow away with the wind, or are washed away by flash floods, leaving infertile lower soil layers that bake in the sun and become an unproductive hardpan” ~ Wikipedia.

What we are doing to nature is the opposite of altruistic behaviour. We don’t care for nature. We disturb rather than help nature. We interfere, impede and destroy. We are hard-hearted, pitiless, unfeeling, selfish cruel and greedy.

Planet Earth, our home, gives and gives – The irony of it all is that humans have evolved from nature. Nature is the source of all our food, air and water; we are thus dependent on nature for our survival. We are co-dependent on everything around us! Interdependence is not just a word. It is a fact of life. If the natural systems that support life on earth collapse, then humanity is going to collapse. So, to survive we really have to learn ‘altruism’ from nature, because helping and cooperation and giving back or not harming the environment promotes the survival of our species.

Reciprocal Altruism – Though we are not by nature altruistic, there is such a thing as ‘Reciprocal Altruism’. The idea is human. The concept is as old as philosophy; the concept was named Reciprocal Altruism only in 1971. Reciprocal altruism can perhaps be explained by saying – the cost of helping is offset by the likelihood of benefit in return (‘If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’). The hypothesis suggests that every “kind” act is ultimately done to benefit the self and we ‘give’ under the assumption that we’ll receive in return. Our altruism is thus context-specific.

Some early references to reciprocity can be found from the 6th Century BCE.  Zi Gong asked Kong Fuzi (Kong the Master – Latinized to ‘Confucius’), “Is there one word that may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” The Master (Confucius) said, “Is not RECIPROCITY such a word?”  He also advised, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”  There is also this quote from the Mahabharata. “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behaviour is due to selfish desires – Brihaspati, Mahabharata.

Similar sayings have been found in the Torah, the central reference of Judaism. And one that is called the ‘golden rule’ is attributed to Jesus Christ who had said, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets”.

    Hope lies in us reciprocating nature’s altruism. So, even if we cannot be altruistic, let us practice ‘Reciprocal Altruism’. We have been taking from nature; it’s time to give back.

.    Let us start by leaving nature alone by not taking, stealing and looting from it

.    Be reciprocally altruistic – give back and care for what nature gives us

.    Teach ourselves and our children awareness that Earth is a giving planet and the natural world has given everything that humans have ever needed to survive, and thrive; food, water, medicine, materials for shelter, and nutrients

.    Teach ourselves and our children the value of trees and water that planet earth has provided

.    Demonstrate to children what is biodegradable, what is environment friendly and what is not

.    Teach children reciprocity, mindfulness and compassion for nature

.    Be an example and teach children to be exemplars

.    Reduce our use of unsustainable resources. Reduce use of plastic products and packaging

.    Support, eat and buy organic food to protect the soil and the environment from chemicals and pesticides that leach into the soil and pollute water

.    Be compassionate to our planet Earth, to nature, to our environment, and to our fellow man, and to all living things.

.    Think long term; understand the significance of our actions and really care about their consequences

.    Practice Ahimsa – Non harm

.    Practice this nugget of wisdom by an anonymous Native American sage …

Teach your children what we have taught our children – that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.” 

Pratap Antony is a Passive activist. Active pacifist freelance thinker and writer. Writes on an array of subjects: ecology and environment, social justice and pluralism, management ideas and issues. Music: western classical, jazz, and Indian classical dance.


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