Psychological vs. Biological Altruism

11 June 2010


There are at least two kinds of altruism.  Psychological altruism means acting out of concern for the well-being of others, without regard to your own self-interest.  Biological altruism refers to behavior that helps the survival of a species without benefiting the particular individual who’s being altruistic.   It may not be obvious what exactly these two forms of altruism have to do with each other and why they should be discussed in the same breath. 

 You could think that the two come together in certain theories about human nature.  Some say that humans are by nature selfish.  But evolutionary biology and psychology are beginning to challenge this idea.   It turns out that evolution has actually hard-wired altruistic behavior into many animals -- including human beings.  Thus the facts of biological altruism might be thought to show the error of those who think that humans are psychologically egoistic.

 But to think that way would put you in danger of mixing “is” and “ought.”  Biological  altruism may have nothing to do with morality.  Even if some animals have evolved to be altruistic, that doesn’t automatically make it morally right.  Biological altruism isn’t a challenge to psychological egoism, but to what used to be called the selfish gene hypothesis. That’s the hypothesis that genes are solely in the business of replicating themselves and that an animal is basically the tool of its genes. Genes make animals behave so those very genes get reproduced as often as possible in subsequent generations.

 Admittedly that’s a peculiar use of the word selfish.  Genes don’t really have a self.  So they can’t really have self-interests.  And that’s  why biological altruism is different from psychological altruism and has nothing to do with morality.  Richard Dawkins coined the phrase "selfish gene", as a metaphor.  He was just trying to say that genes act as if they are totally self-centered.

Of course, that does raise the interesting question of just biological altruism happens, given that genes are so metaphorically selfish.   That’s not the same question as how psychological altruism happens,  but it’s an interesting question in its own right.  It turns out that lots of organisms behave in ways that are detrimental to their own chances of survival, but are beneficial to the reproductive chances of fellow organisms.  For example, a vervet monkey will give alarm calls to warn other monkeys of the presence of predators, even though this attracts attention to itself, increasing its own chance of being attacked and killed.

This isn’t quite the same as saying that genes are metaphorically selfless rather than metaphorically selfish.   The point is rather that selection may not operate on individual genes at all, but on whole groups or populations.  A group that contains some altruists will survive better as a group than a group that contains no altruists.   Evolution, it turns out, can work on whole groups as a unit.   That’s called group selection.  That’s a still controversial thought, but one that seems to be gaining wider acceptance.   

 But let’s get back at least briefly to psychological altruism. Maybe there is a way to tie biological and psychological altruism together, especially if we think of the human psyche as at least in part designed by natural selection, especially if we think of collective human psychology.  Think of a human collectivity like a nation.  We don’t all have to be willing to die for our country.  But maybe some of us had better be.  If some of us are,  we’d all be better off – though maybe those who are willing to die will be worse off individually.   Now I’m not suggesting that nations are directly designed by natural selection on groups.  But I am suggesting that maybe something like the process of group selection has shaped the human psyche for at least a modest degree of psychological altruism by guaranteeing that collectivities of humans contain enough psychological altruists to enhance the groups chances of reproductive success.

In hypothesizing that to some extent human psychological altruism may be a consequence of biological altruism,  I do not mean at all to suggest that  people blindly do what their genes tell them to do.  People act on their beliefs, desires, hopes and fears, on their conceptions of right and wrong.   But in the end people are just biological organisms.  The human brain is just another organ.  It’s highly likely that even our conceptions of right and wrong are a product of evolutionary forces.  So it wouldn’t

be altogether surprising to find a tendency toward altruistic thinking wired into our very neurons by something like the mechanism of group selection.  Would it?  That’s the question we put to our guest, Jeffrey Schloss, who  is an expert on both biological and psychological altruism.  

Comments (4)

Guest's picture


Friday, June 11, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

"that does raise the interesting question of just

"that does raise the interesting question of just [how] biological altruism happens, given that genes are so metaphorically selfish". I suggest that this shows that the question itself is confused. a) That biological altruism, as distinct from psychological altruism, does not occur. (why assume that animals other than humans lack psychology) b) that genes do not generate behaviour at all. (genes are 'stuff' designed to replicate cells - only total organizisms 'behave' and behaviour occurs in an environment against a background of experience. )

Guest's picture


Saturday, June 12, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I think that the better way of drawing the line be

I think that the better way of drawing the line between psychological and biological altruism is that psychologically altruistic acts are done by *conscious intention* of helping another whereas that doesn't have to be the case with biological altruism.
'Biological altruism isn?t a challenge to psychological egoism, but to what used to be called the selfish gene hypothesis. '
I'm not sure why should biological altruism be incompatible with gene-centered view of evolution - in fact gene-centered view of evolution explains biological altruism. Biological altruism, in my view, is more of a challenge to individual organism's point of view.

Guest's picture


Sunday, June 13, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

To comment on Alexander's comment, I think the poi

To comment on Alexander's comment, I think the point made in this essay is that since consciousness itself is an outcome of evolutionary biology, desires to help others are just other mechanisms of biological altruism. I agree with this point, if I've understood Ken correctly; we are always trying to distinguish ourselves from other animals, to set ourselves above other species. For instance, humans have falsely claimed that other animals can't communicate or that other animals don't have emotions, or that other animals can't anticipate.... Self-awareness is just a result of chemicals and neuropathways that developed for survival, other species may have various forms of self-awareness and, more to the point, animals, human and other, have various methods to achieve the same altruistic behavior.

Guest's picture


Friday, June 18, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I think it's very relevant to contrast these two f

I think it's very relevant to contrast these two fields and I would even include neuroscience into the mix.
It is evident that nature predisposes us genetically to act altruistic. The "Selfish Gene" hypothesis is another blow, and possibly, could prove to be very disabling to the argument of Free-Will vs. Determinism.
I know there are psychologists who study the social mechanics of microscopic worms, (saw it on Charlie Rose: Brain Series), I wonder if researchers are also studying altruistic behavior in such organisms.
7th paragraph is a great hypothesis. Eric, Alexander, cmcdonald, good comments. Keep up the good work, and great article, and broadcast here.