True Altruism: Can Humans Change To Save Other Species?

October 13, 2014 • Protection of Species, Daily Email Recap

True Altruism: Can Humans Change To Save Other Species?

A grim new census of the world’s dwindling wildlife populations should force us to confront a troubling question: Are humans capable of acting in ways that help other species at a cost to themselves?

by Verlyn Klinkenborg 

See source content: Yale Environment 360

Ever since Darwin, biologists have been arguing about altruism – the concept that an individual may behave in a way that benefits its species, at a cost to itself. After all, the self-sacrifice implicit in altruistic behavior seems to run against the grain of evolutionary theory, which proposes that the well-being of a species depends on robust, individual self-interest. Many biologists argue that in the non-human world what looks like altruism – benefiting another at a cost to oneself – may be merely the final refinement of self-interest, self-interest operating not at the level of the organism or the species but at the level of the gene.

This is all very interesting. But the discussion nearly always concerns the behavior of individuals within a single species – the warning cries of vervet monkeys, which alert their fellow monkeys to predators while calling attention to themselves; the self-abnegation of a stinging bee. What I wonder is this: Is altruism possible across species boundaries? Can an individual from one species, at cost to itself, act in a way that benefits individuals from another species? And – the crucial question – can an entire species learn to shape its behavior, to its own cost, for the good of other species?

I ask because we need to know now. According to a new study from the World Wildlife Fund, the population of aquatic and terrestrial animals on this planet has dropped by half since 1970. Let me choose a better verb. Half the animals on this planet have been destroyed in the past 44 years. Let me put it another way. We’ve destroyed half the animals on this planet since 1970, even while our own numbers have doubled.

See source content: Yale Environment 360


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