Altruism exists in nature, Reciprocal altruism in humans

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Photo by gideon_wright

      For some obscure and hard-to-understand reason, man feels superior to everything else on Earth.

The irony of it all is that we humans forget that we 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! We therefore must learn to co-evolve with nature. To do so, we have to change ourselves; our attitudes, and our values and be willing to understand that interdependence is not just a word, it is a fact of life.

For humankind to survive we would have to shed our superiority complex and stop thinking that we are superior to all other species on the planet.

We must humble ourselves and learn from our fellow inhabitants and realise that if the natural systems that support life on earth collapse, then humanity will collapse.

Other species on our blue planet do not indulge themselves in cruel destruction for any reason, so we humans must acknowledge and thank the other inhabitants of this planet (other species) for not being wilfully destructive.

     One of the lessons we must learn from nature is ‘altruism’, though we don’t know for sure if humans, can be altruistic, it is a good idea for us to aspire to be altruistic.

The meaning of Altruistic in the Universal Dictionary is: 1. Loving others as oneself. 2. Behaviour that promotes the survival chances of others at a cost to ones own. 3. Self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.

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.

We understand that altruism exists in nature. But can man be altruistic? The simple and real truth is, humans are not by nature altruistic though there are many stories of altruistic behaviour amongst humans, we all know that these stories are about exceptional humans.

However, there is such a thing as Reciprocal Altruism. The idea is human. The concept is as old as philosophy, but 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’.)

Some early references to reciprocity can be found from the 6th Century BCE.  Zi Gong asked Master Kong (Kǒng Fūzǐ c. 551 – c. 479 BCE, better known by the name 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 where sage Brihaspati tells the king Yudhishthira, “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

Similar sayings have been found in the Torah, the foundation of all Jewish instruction and guidance, and in the New Testament of the Bible where Jesus Christ, referring to the Torah had said, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets”.

We believe that there is intelligent life amongst humans; those who love the planet and want to save it from other destructive fellow humans, and it is these ‘intelligent’ fellow humans that give us the confidence that all humans are not equal and therefore not equally destructive.

So far, we have been taking from nature. Now we must start giving back. Or at least ‘leave alone’ – and stop taking, stealing and looting from it!

We are hopeful that we can still save ourselves and our planet from further destruction. Yet, since it is beyond us to take our lessons from nature, or love, care and respect nature which has been giving and caring for us for long enough, and we cannot be Altruistic, let us practice Reciprocal Altruism.

It is up to us, all of us, to rise to the occasion and join the ranks of the intelligent humans among us and raise ecological awareness in people so that they may start acting, if not altruistically, at least with reciprocal altruism  towards nature. And if that can’t be done either, at least practice the precept of Ahimsa, ‘non-harm’.

Pratap Antony writes on ecology and environment, social justice and pluralism,corporate communications and music.  


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