Altruism (biology)

In biology, altruism refers to behaviour by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor.[1] Altruism in this sense is different from the philosophical concept of altruism, in which an action would only be called "altruistic" if it was done with the conscious intention of helping another. In the behavioural sense, there is no such requirement. As such, it is not evaluated in moral terms—it is the consequences of an action for reproductive fitness that determine whether the action is considered altruistic, not the intentions, if any, with which the action is performed.[2]

The term altruism was coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte in French, as altruisme, for an antonym of egoism.[3][4] He derived it from an Italian altrui, which in turn was derived from Latin alteri, meaning "other people" or "somebody else".[5]

Altruistic behaviours appear most obviously in kin relationships, such as in parenting, but may also be evident among wider social groups, such as in social insects. They allow an individual to increase the success of its genes by helping relatives that share those genes.[6] Obligate altruism is the permanent loss of direct fitness (with potential for indirect fitness gain). For example, honey bee workers may forage for the colony. Facultative altruism is temporary loss of direct fitness (with potential for indirect fitness gain followed by personal reproduction); for example, a Florida scrub jay helping at the nest, then gaining parental territory.[7]

Overview

In the science of ethology (the study of behavior), and more generally in the study of social evolution, on occasion, some animals do behave in ways that reduce their individual fitness but increase the fitness of other individuals in the population; this is a functional definition of altruism.[8] Research in evolutionary theory has been applied to social behaviour, including altruism. Cases of animals helping individuals to whom they are closely related can be explained by kin selection, and are not considered true altruism. Beyond the physical exertions that in some species mothers and in some species fathers undertake to protect their young, extreme examples of sacrifice may occur. One example is matriphagy (the consumption of the mother by her offspring) in the spider Stegodyphus; another example is a male spider allowing a female fertilized by him to eat him. Hamilton's rule describes the benefit of such altruism in terms of Wright's coefficient of relationship to the beneficiary and the benefit granted to the beneficiary minus the cost to the sacrificer. Should this sum be greater than zero a fitness gain will result from the sacrifice.

When apparent altruism is not between kin, it may be based on reciprocity. A monkey will present its back to another monkey, who will pick out parasites; after a time the roles will be reversed. Such reciprocity will pay off, in evolutionary terms, as long as the costs of helping are less than the benefits of being helped and as long as animals will not gain in the long run by "cheating"—that is to say, by receiving favours without returning them. This is elaborated on in evolutionary game theory and specifically the prisoner's dilemma as social theory.