As clean-up and recovery efforts begin in earnest in the wake of Wednesday’s devastating tornadoes, it might be worth examining the nature of the human heart to see if there is an unselfish goodness nesting at its core that animates the apparently altruistic behavior we’ll see of neighbor helping neighbor, or is what appears to be altruism more truthfully just selfishness with a bit of lipstick and nail polish? 

At the outset, we must dispense as non-altruistic actions that have only a superficial altruism intended to make the donor look good.  These would include, for example, donating money to a hospital or university, in return for which the institution names a wing or building after the donor.  Though superficially altruistic, these “donations” actually accrue to the advantage of the donor, as they enhance the donor’s status in society in a very public and concrete way.  Thus it’s doubtful many were much impressed that it was altruism motivating the $15 million donation made to the University of Texas Law School when I was a student there, because in return for the donation, the law school renamed its law library after the donor.  That wasn’t altruism.  It was self-aggrandizement. 

In a similar vein, as my daughter observed last night, it is not altruism that motivates a person to change their Facebook status to “Praying for the Storm Victims”.  That again, is simply self-aggrandizement.  Neither is it altruism to purchase a bracelet to wear that shows support for a cause, be it cancer research or, as some of the kid’s in my son’s class did when he relapsed leukemia, to show support for him.  It’s not altruism to pay extra for a license plate that supports a particular university or worthy cause.  Wearing bracelets or displaying license plates and Facebook statuses purporting to show altruistic behavior, but that identify the donor of a cause as such, no matter how worthy is the cause, accrue to the benefit of the donor, enhancing, if only just a little bit, their status in society.

Perhaps it would be helpful to define altruism.  The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition provides that altruism is either “unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness” or “instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to the individual but contributes to the survival of the species”.  The first definition is what people seek to be considered by their superficial stabs at altruism.  Unselfishness is a highly-valued trait in society, so a great many people selfishly seek to be considered as possessing it; the publicity surrounding their supposedly unselfish acts reveals their true nature.

This second definition is the one that biologists employ in attempting to ascertain whether a behavior in nature is altruistic.  For biologists, particularly evolutionary biologists, “behavior that is detrimental to the individual” means behavior that impairs the altruistic individual’s chance at reproductive success while enhancing the probability of reproductive success for the object of his altruism. 

Strictly construed, the tenets of evolution theory should make truly altruistic behavior an aberration in nature–one that is impossible to accrue for anything more than a generation or two as the impairment it inflicts upon the reproductive success of the altruist is swamped by the reproductive successes of the objects of his altruism.  An individual that decreases his reproductive fitness to enhance the reproductive fitness of another will soon enough see his genes eliminated from the genetic pool by the very individuals his behavior helped.

But a question then arises:  What is the appropriate level of organization to which altruistic behavior should be attributed?  If we use the evolutionary biologist’s definition of altruism, the individual organism that is purportedly altruistic must also be capable of reproducing, else what it does is not altruistic.  For the social insects, e.g., ants, bees and termites, behavior that meets the second test of altruism, e.g., the worker bee that travels from flower to flower gathering nectar for the hive, i.e., acting in ways detrimental to itself but beneficial to its species, is not truly altruistic because the worker bee has no individual opportunity to propagate its particular genetic code.  The hive is the relevant organism to which questions of altruism should be directed, and instances of bee hives impairing their own reproductive success to favor that of another hive is nowhere to be found.  

Individual bees and ants could be considered as something similar to the individual cells of a human body.  The skin, muscle, immune system, and etc. cells in a human body have no independent opportunity for gene propagation.  Though individually, for example, immune cells can propagate to fight invaders, and even rearrange their own DNA in some cases to better do so, they are shorn of purpose outside of the human body.  They might seem, like the warrior class in an ant colony that sacrifices hundreds of individuals in order to repel intruders, to be engaged in altruistic behavior, but their purpose is the same as the warrior ants—protecting the ability of the larger organism to reproduce.  The human body is to its gametes what the ant colony is to the queen, a magnificent edifice constructed for the sole purpose of seeing that the genetic code stored in its gametes (or queen, for ants and bees) makes it to the next generation.  Of course, this is a crude simplification, particularly in that the genetic code of an ant colony or bee hive is not solely contained with the queen (there are males that provide some genetic variation), but for these purposes the analogy works to show that evidence of altruism depends on understanding at what level of organism the inquiry is made.   

Considering that individual humans have the ability to independently reproduce, the relevant level of inquiry for evaluating where altruism exists in humans is at the individual level.  At first glance, considering the horrific numbers of conflicts in which individual humans have acted to their own detriment in contributing to the survival of the group to which they belong, it might seem that humans are innately altruistic.  But there are two problems with this assessment.  First is that humans do not reproduce asexually—they need a partner.  Going into battle may very well be the only means that a male of the species has in order to secure a reproductive partner.  Instead of willingness to risk life and limb to defeat a societal enemy being an act of altruism, it may instead be the sole available strategy for achieving reproductive success.  Second is that the individual warrior fighting in battle may be protecting the survival and reproductive prerogatives of individuals so closely related to the warrior that their survival and reproductive success, which would be drastically if not fatally impaired with defeat in battle, would stand in proxy to his own.  Biologists call this “kin selection”, and find it to be a quite common phenomenon in nature. 

It can be imagined that primitive man, existing at first in closely-related families which then grew to still closely-related clans and tribes, found all the incentive needed for “altruistic” sacrifice in battle by dint of the close genetic relationship he carried with the objects of his altruism. 

There was a potential multiplier effect to his sacrifices as well.  Outside of food and shelter, protection from predators, human and otherwise, was of paramount importance to group survival.  The brave warrior that successfully protected the family, clan or tribe could count on having his reproductive opportunities amplified.  Success in battle elevated the warrior’s status in the group, which enhanced his chances at gene propagation.

Thus what may appear to be altruism is perhaps either kin selection or simply status enhancement, the latter of which, in a society such as today’s, where status within the society is often the determinative factor in reproductive success, explains a great deal of so-called altruistic behavior, such as all of the initial examples cited (buildings, bracelets, etc.).  In my personal opinion, superficial altruism directed at status enhancement is a most repugnant strategy for climbing in community stature, but it is so commonly pursued that the strategy must enjoy some measure of effectiveness. 

There is another selfish motivation for what is apparently altruistic behavior:  Reciprocity.  It is not altruism, i.e., it is not acting to one’s detriment to benefit the species, when it is expected that the favor will be returned.  This is simply quid pro quo.  It may appear the act is altruistic, if the return of the favor from its recipient is highly unlikely, but that’s a problem of risk/reward calculus, not of altruism.  If there is expectation of the favor being returned, no matter how small is the expectation, then the act is not altruistic.  It may be expected that others than the recipient will return the favor.  The donation of blood, for example, holds an expectation of reciprocity, i.e., that if the donor needs blood at some point in the future, that it will be provided him, and is therefore not altruistic.  Just because neither the donor nor the donee  will likely ever know of the other, does not obliterate the expectation of return.  There is an intervening agency (i.e., Red Cross, the blood bank) that “makes a market” for the donor and donee in which their favors can be exchanged and, in a rudimentary fashion, their expectations can be enforced (mostly through exhortations and guilt).

In a tragedy as just occurred in Alabama, the motivation for helping a neighbor may resolve to any of the foregoing reasons.  It may be kin selection.  Certainly, the first people I would call on if my house blew away would be my close relatives.  It may be status enhancement, or at least the prevention of status impairment.  What effect would refusing to help another in time of need do to the status in the community of the person that refused?  It may be the expectation of reciprocity, either in a rather immediate sense (help me get this tree off my car, and I’ll help you get your tree off your car), or later on down the road, ten or fifteen years from now when the next big day of F4 and F5 monsters roll into town.  To say that none of these deeds are truly altruistic does not cheapen their value.  Superficial altruism, i.e., trying to appear unselfish in order to selfishly gain the benefit of appearing to be unselfish, is cheap and actually can operate to impair status if the motivation for the deed is so easily understood as selfishly-motivated that it makes the whole thing a farce.  (But would that then make the deed altruistic, if only by mistake?)

So my answer to the question originally posed is no.  There is no such thing as altruism among humans, or really any living organism.  The eighteenth century German Idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant tried to rescue religion from the age of reason by imbuing man with a sort of “God sense”, an instinct to unselfishly do the right thing that he called the “categorical imperative”.  Deeds were categorically imperative because they were right and we inherently, a priori, knew them to be right, and did them out of God-inspired duty, not because there was any selfish motivation behind them.  In fact, a deed that offered even a sliver of gain for its motivation; that treated others as a means rather than an end, could not arise from the God that reveals for us the a priori categorical imperatives.  Kant was, very simply, wrong.  There is no categorical imperative with which the human spirit is imbued to do what is right solely because of some vague idea that it is right.  Humans are born purely selfish; it takes years of training to instill in them a moral code of enlightened self-interest, the basis of which is survival, not altruism.  That which enhances survival (and thereby reproductive probabilities) is good; that which impairs it is bad.  Doing good for others that is motivated by kin selection or status enhancement /protection or reciprocity is not altruistic, and it is not vain or vulgar to admit as much.  Attempting to understand human behavior as arising in any other way than self-interest yields a confused and internally-contradictory mess. 

Charity depends on selfishness.  Lest there be doubt, consider the few numbers of charitable foundations that aren’t named for their founders.  But selfishness is not inherently bad.  It is only occasionally repugnant when it is disguised as altruism.

(For more on the evolutionary and ethical issues of altruism in biology, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a good place to start)