Altruism – Concept, characteristics and biological altruism

We explain what altruism is, the origin of the term and what altruistic people are like. Also, what is biological altruism.

We call an altruist who cares about selflessly giving to others.

What is altruism?

Altruism It is the willingness of some people to do good to others, even at the cost of their own well-being. That is, we call an altruist who cares about selflessly giving to others, without caring that by doing so he is sacrificing himself. Usually heroes, martyrs, and Samaritans are people from whom we expect altruistic behavior.

This term is a loan from the French language, in which the word was coined altruism in 1851, in the work of the French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte (1798-1857). It is composed of the French voices autri (“The others”, “the neighbor”) and the suffixismus (“Doctrine”), so that it can be understood as “the doctrine of looking out for others”. It is, therefore, the antonym of selfishness.

In the philosophical realm, there is debate as to whether altruism is natural in humans, as it is a species whose evolutionary success lies precisely in the ability to operate in groups and to watch over each other.

Some psychological positions affirm that yes, that from 18 months of age the human being tends to exhibit behaviors of this type. On the other hand, other schools of thought affirm the opposite: that the human being is selfish and that he needs, therefore, a process of education to instill in him the values ​​of generosity and detachment.

We should not confuse this use of the word altruism with the one that is made of it in the field of biology, as we will see later.

Altruistic people

Altruistic people are those that show a lot of empathy, generosity and a great willingness to help to the other without receiving anything in return, and even sacrificing part of their well-being in the process. Thus, they are examples of altruism:

  • The volunteers who dedicate time, effort and money of their own to care for those afflicted by misfortune, such as homeless people or survivors of some natural tragedy.
  • Voluntary blood donors, who do not receive in return any payment, or other satisfaction than to help replenish the reserves of a hospital.
  • Nurses and doctors who tend to those wounded in war, exposing their own lives in the process.
  • Philanthropists and patrons of the arts and non-profit social initiatives, who dedicate part of their wealth to the collective welfare.

Biological altruism

biological altruism
Biological altruism favors the survival of the species.

In biology, altruism is known as the behaviors of individuals (mostly animals) that improve the biological efficiency of another, despite reducing their own.

That is to say, a behavior in which a living being makes it easier for another or others to survive, despite putting himself or herself at risk or obligation, and often not to gain anything by doing it. However, these biological dynamics are not seen from a moral point of view, and the animal does not usually have the intention of “doing good”, far from it.

Biological altruism can be of three types:

  • Forced altruism, when the individual suffers a direct and permanent loss of his biological aptitudes, in exchange for an indirect gain. For example, a bee that dies when stinging an intruder, but in return defends the hive and guarantees the survival of its genetic relatives.
  • Facultative altruism, when the individual suffers a direct and temporary loss of his biological aptitudes, in exchange for an indirect gain with a reproductive potential. For example, certain birds help their parents to take care of their nest free of charge, but when they die they inherit their territory.
  • Reciprocal altruism, when the individual suffers a direct and temporary loss of his biological aptitudes, in exchange for an indirect gain but with the expectation of receiving the same benefit later. For example, monkeys delouse each other, always with the expectation of later being deloused by their fellows, thus benefiting each other.