Humans can be so pompous. Letter writers frequently expressed that sentiment regarding "The Samaritan Paradox," by Ernst Fehr and Suzann-Viola Renninger, in the premier issue. The article mentioned how humans are more altruistic than would be strictly explainable in a world presumably governed by Darwinian "survival of the fittest." It further posited that Homo sapiens may be unique in routinely demonstrating "strong altruism"--actions made to benefit others despite personal cost. Many readers indignantly pointed out that animals may feed or protect other, unrelated creatures in a similar fashion. Doing our part, we selflessly share these, and other topics, on the pages below.
MILK OF ANIMAL KINDNESS?
The article "The Samaritan Paradox," by Ernst Fehr and Suzann-Viola Renninger, describes how altruism emerges spontaneously even in anonymous exchanges among people, whereas animal altruism starts and ends with kin.
I know of a documented case in which a crow fed a starving kitten worms and whatever else it could find. The crow literally put its beak into the kitten's mouth to feed it. This would appear to be altruism that transcends kin. How do you explain such an act?
"The Samaritan Paradox" states that "a body of evidence supports the notion that Homo sapiens is the only species capable of strong altruism." This is simply not true. In a recent example, in waters off New Zealand, dolphins guarded lifeguards-in-training from a shark. The dolphins swam in tight circles around the people and effectively herded them into a defensible position for 40 minutes until the swimmers were able to reach shore.
Surely there was no benefit to the dolphins--indeed, they wasted an extensive amount of energy in protecting the swimmers. Is this not strong altruism? Dolphins are not the only nonhuman animals to display such behavior. Similar instances have been found among gorillas, chimpanzees, certain monkeys and rats.
Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada
The Editors reply: The authors did not say that animals do not show altruism. Their main argument is that large-scale cooperation in big groups of strangers does not occur among animals unless they are closely related genetically. This does not preclude single acts of altruism across species. It is natural to assume that humanlike rational intent must be governing certain seemingly selfless actions by animals. But these activities may also frequently be easily explained by instinct. A bird, for instance, is hardwired by evolution to fill an open mouth with food.
In a particularly poignant example of the double-edged nature of such behavior, we know of a case in which a lioness in Ken-ya protected a series of baby oryx (a type of antelope). When one of the luckless ungulates starved to death under her care, she ate it. Where animal instinct ends and reasoning or feelings begin is an active line of scientific inquiry.
Fehr and Renninger missed one angle of exploration--self-identified ego boundaries. Philosopher Ken Wilber's A Brief History of Everything examines levels of internal and external observation and understandings. I believe a significant factor in altruism is the individual's sense of identity. For some people, the sense of identity ends with their skin, possessions or status. Others extend it to include blood and marriage connections; friends, fraternal organizations or teams; community, their nation or their race. A few extend their sense of identity to the sum of humanity and even to all living things.
The people on the train volunteered to help the walletless passenger mentioned in the From the Editor column because they identified her as being in a zone of their sense of identity that was important enough for them to offer assistance. I believe all healthy people desire wellness for their zones of identity, and so they will act to serve that need after doing a quick calculation of the potential cost balanced against the importance of that zone to them.
Wainwright, Alberta, Canada