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Thursday, March 9

Is Altruism hard-wired or just learned very early?

The observations of 18 month old human children showing "helping" behavior seems consistent with my experiences with children, but I don't think the observations really support the conclusion that such behavior is hardwired:

"It's been claimed chimpanzees act mainly for their own ends; but in our experiment, there was no reward and they still helped." Altruism might have evolved six million years ago in the common ancestor of chimps and humans, the study suggests.


I don't know all the details of the study, but children can learn quite a lot in that 18 months. Although an average 18 month old may not have a large speaking vocabulary, they do tend to understand quite a lot more than they are yet able to speak.

Even if "helping" isn't rewarded in the study, I would expect that many children are "rewarded" for helping by their parents or other people who take care of them. The parent may be pleased and tend to do more things that the child wants. The child may not be aware of it fully. He just may associate helping with being happier. I don't know that I would consider that being hardwired for altruism so much as being wired in a way such that altruism could easily be learned.

4 comments:

MC said...

Alturism is observed in more than just primates and/or mammals. It is also observed in avian (bird) behavior.

I do not have my animal behaviour text with me at present, so I cannot cite other forms of life that exhibit this behavior.

I would tend to lean towards the conclusion that alturism is instinctual.

Becky said...

I don't see how an animal demonstrating altruistic behavior leads to the conclusion that it is instinctual. Wouldn't a proper test of an altruistic instinct involve having an animal raised in isolation? Or at least in carefully controlled conditions where the animal was not being exposed to or rewarded for altruistic behavior? I have observed animals who appeared to behave in altruistic ways generally and yet other members of the same species who neglected or even killed their own young and generally behaved in ways that seemed very unaltruistic.

Leo said...

Antropromorphism doesn't help. We are too different from any other species. I wish scientists would stop doing making cruel experiemnts on monkeys to compare them to human beings. :(

Anyway. I think altruism is learned to some extent, but it depends on the pleasure it gives people and the buildup of experiences, like anything else.

I think it is a HUGE mistake to see selfishness as an opposite characteristic and as an innate one. I actually think that selfishness is more complex to learn than altruism. It is not easy to not care about others.

Becky said...

I don't think we're so different from other species that we can't benefit from learning about them.