altruism

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"Nature Guide Journal"

20 September 2001

The image of nature as wholly dictated by tooth-and-nail aggression is not accurate.  Animals often cooperate with others of their species–and sometimes with other species–by sharing resources or even committing considerable effort to help.

For most species, altercations between rival individuals, such as bull elk, are demonstrations of status, strength, or endurance that end when one of the individuals gives up.  Though there are occasional injuries, death in such instances are rare.

Even strongly territorial animals that defend against members of their own species from different social groups almost always drive off trespassers rather than kill them.

Death through altruism appears to be more common in the world than death through aggression by a member of the same species.  Biologists usually define "altruism" as behavior of an animal that is risky–perhaps deadly–for that animal, but benefits other members of its community.

Clearly, a mother bird diving at a dangerous predator to protect her young at the nest would be considered altruistic behavior.  As would crows in a scattered family group calling out a warning to the others at the risk of being located by the predator at large.

Although there are differences in opinion, it is generally believed that animal altruism exists and survives as a behavior pattern because there is some reproductive advantage to the group.

Altruism has been working well for ants for over 100 million years.  Rising to an astonishing level of specialization, there are species of ants in which castes of individual members function as farmers, nannies, warriors, builders, even storage containers, walls, and bridges.  Individuals whose specialized role requires them to leave the nest do so at grave risk on behalf of the colony.  Certain worker ants have an average a life span of only a week. In effect, huge numbers of worker ants trade their individual reproductive opportunities for the improved success of the entire colony of their sisters.

Like other social insects, ants readily sacrifice their individual lives in ways that benefit the group.  Bees die in the attempt to sting, wild dogs hunt to feed the puppies of their pack's lead female, lone baboons will charge an attacking lion while the troop escapes to safety—in fact, most social animals exhibit some level of instinctual altruism that serves the economics of reproduction.

There are countless examples of human altruism: sacrifice for the greater good is deeply embedded in our mores and cultures.

Reflecting on the events of September 11th, it seems to me that the underlying questions we're presently grappling with aren't limited to, "How can I act for the greater good of my community?" but includes, "What is our community?"

The over-riding power that culture has in our species gives us control over what constitutes a human community.  With high speed travel and easy access, rapid, world-wide communications, our species has become a global one. I, for one, think remembering that is vital to our success.

It is as natural for social animals to collaborate and assist as it is to confront and attack.  Humans included.

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