This I Believe

Jim - Tucson, Arizona
Entered on April 9, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: humility

I believe in altruism.

I believe that sometimes we do good things just for the sake of doing good things.

The Oxford dictionary defines altruism as a regard for others as a principle of action; unselfishness.

As I learned about biological behavior in college and afterwards as a science teacher, I’ve heard a good deal of talk about the absence of altruism in the natural world. Not that it is lacking in the world, but that it doesn’t exist. Non-reproductive Ants, Jays or Naked Mole Rats that defend their nest are not doing so to promote their ability to pass on their DNA, but they are defending the ability for a relative to do so. As the argument goes, when an ant, a jay or a naked mole rat defends its nest, often at the expense of injury or even death, it is promoting its DNA through another individual. So a worker ant, related jay or brother mole rat spends its life and energy promoting not its full set of DNA, but at least a part of it. Thus, its actions are not unselfish.

Part of the problem with the argument lies in the absolute literal translation of unselfish. If it is to be said that unselfish means completely without reward, then it is easy to say that altruism may not truly exist in nature. The problem, though, with absolutes is that they are so absolute and unbending.

Maybe altruism is simply a human affair. For what would you call the actions of someone who picks up a piece of litter on the street? It could be said that this person will be rewarded with a better view, but what if this person, picking up the litter, is from another neighborhood, another city or from another country? What if the person is simply walking down the street, sees the litter, picks it up and never returns?

What would you call the actions of a soccer coach who gives his last efforts in a hope that the team he volunteers for will do well after his passing? What of the soldier who dies protecting a comrade who is only related by division, company and unit? What of the Father who fights his cancer until the last of his family arrives to say fair well and then dies the next day?

I believe that altruism does exist and it can be argued that it is natural. It is the stuff in which heroes are made.

Most of those we tend to call heroes, be they politician, basketball player or music star are not really heroes at all. Not if they use their good work to promote themselves or others. I would say that those who do good work in hopes of heaven or those who seek heaven ignoring good works are less then altruistic and not actually heroes at all. Even the group that picks up litter on the side of the road and displays a sign noting their good efforts are not truly altruistic.

Altruism is a special case, though it is evident everywhere. Look to teachers be they parents, a guy on the street or a volunteer soccer coach. Look in your neighborhood, because you won’t see much of this on television. Take a walk, play a sport or go to school and you’ll see that this special case of altruism is evident in some of the most familiar places. The stuff of heroes comes in an everyday event on the street, in a park or in the library.

I believe in altruism and I believe that it is a natural and very human thing. It may not be verifiable in a Naked Mole Rat, but I can see it on my street.