The answer to that question appears to be “no.” Altruism or, “the behavior of an organism that benefits another at its own expense”, is not found in the natural world. Ever hear that nice guys (and girls) finish last?
The main goal of life is to pass on your genes to the next generation (aka have sex and make babies)! Genes are continually being passed on so that the genetic material that makes you unique continues for as long as possible.
To ensure this, no energy is spent on helping another organism when that energy could possibly be spent on reproducing. In nature, being nice isn’t going to help you pass on your genes. Therefore, there is no altruism in nature.
Any altruistic behavior would be eliminated over time by natural selection. Sad to say, it’s a lie, cheat, and steal world out there. Just think of the people that permanently borrow your notes, don’t pay you back for a quick loan, go to your apartment and eat all your food, or are just generally a mooch.
So what about my dog? He’s nice to me with no benefit. What about bees, ants, or dolphins, all of whom have an apparent group mentality?
Well, first of all, dogs aren’t really under natural selection anymore. They are a domesticated species that we have specifically bred to be our companions. Also, they benefit from this “altruistic” behavior by receiving food and care. In the scientific world this is known as reciprocal altruism; in other words, one organism does something that costs them, but then the other organism returns the favor. Monkeys, dolphins, and meerkats also operate under reciprocity, with some kin selection.
In social insects, like bees and ants, the majority of the colony members are genetically identical or similar to each other. By working together as a colony, they’re not being altruistic at all. When the colony benefits, more copies of the genes are in circulation and are more likely to survive.
This is the definition of kin selection, where being nice helps those related to you. Since these individuals have copies of the same genes as you, it makes sense to help them survive.
Even in humans, not all altruism is just kindness. When members of the opposite sex help others and volunteer their services, they are seen, even subconsciously, as more attractive. This is sexual selection at work.
By showing that you can handle helping others while still taking care of yourself, your sexual attractiveness increases. Thus, all those so-called “nice guys” aren’t actually so nice.
As for those random acts of kindness, they may not be so random.
As altruism is basically a human construct, it wouldn’t even be around anymore if we were under selection pressure from the environment.
Thanks to technology like machines, medicine, and mass communication, we can afford the luxury of being nice.
So next time you have an opportunity to do something nice, ask yourself if you’re really being nice, or if there’s something else going on. Probably, there’s some kind of outside benefit to you!
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