Meeting 4.3 – Biological and Theological Altruism

On 2 March, the reading group met to discuss ideas of altruism in biology and theology.


The word “altruism” has come to be used in a variety of ways, so we started with a dictionary definition.

Altruism: “1. The belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. 1.1 Zoology Behavior of an animal that benefits another at its own expense.” OED Online

Normally, I defer to the Oxford English Dictionary, but in this case, I fear that both definitions can be misleading.  It highlighted for me four different issues, worthy of consideration.

Self-interest versus Selflessness: Do you consider your own well being when you decide on an action? Do you think of your individual interests? Do you consider broader self interest, that is the collective interests of your group as opposed to other groups? Self-interest need not exclude universal interests of the interests of others. It’s only a question of whether you consider yourself.

Other-interest versus Apathy: Do you consider the well being of others when you decide on an action? Do you think of the interests of all others, or some subset of others?

Relative interest: Do you weigh interests against each other?

Intention: To what extent do these processes take place rationally, objectively, consciously, or willfully? It’s possible to choose subconsciously or to fall into habits of behavior without thought.

Historically, the word was advanced by Auguste Comte in 1830 as an antonym to egoism.


Altruism has been seen as mal-adaptive, by definition, making it a challenge for biologists after the Modern Synthesis. [Mal-adaptive: leading to shorter survival time and/or fewer offsping, selected against.]

Wynne-Edwards (1962) proposed inter-deme selection (between population) as an explanation, but later research suggests this force would be swamped by intra-deme forces. Selfish individuals within a population would take over in that population even though as a whole it was out-competing other populations. In the long run this seems insufficient to produce regular altruism. [David Sloan Wilson is one of the chief advocates for “group selection,” believing that there are situations in which inter-deme selection can lead to altruism.”

Hamilton (1963) formalized kin selection (favoring relatives). “Would I jump in a lake / to save my drowning cousin? / It’s not a risk I’d take / for him plus half a dozen. / But if you raise the stake / and make the prize my brother? / Now that’s a deal I’ll make… / if you’ll just toss in another.” Inclusive fitness makes the success of relatives into individual adaptation. By including the benefits to kin, you reveal how natural selection can promote traits that harm self but help others – provided the others are related.

Trivers (1971) suggested reciprocal altruism (leading to future relational benefit). By counting the advantages of future reciprocation from those helped, you reveal how natural selection can promote traits that harm self but help others – provided the others have an opportunity and a tendency to pay you back. Note that it need only be a probabilistic tendency to reciprocate; it need not be a guarantee. Nor is necessary for the future benefit to go to you; reciprocation may help your kin. [Game theory suggests that, with multiple games, optimal strategies avoid prisoner’s dilemma and tragedy of the commons type problems through short-term altruism.]

Note that all three theories explain spite (selfless punishment of others) as well as altruism (selflessly helping others).

Biological Altruism has come to mean explanations of behavior that are not, in fact, altruistic. Biological altruism applies to traits that are in your collective, family, or long-term self-interest even though they are not in your immediate self interest.


Bearing this in mind, I have updated an earlier breakdown of types of altruism. It began as a summary of discussion with Anna Dornhaus and the Forum on Chance, Purpose, and Progress at the University of Arizona ( For the sake of clarity, I provide equations with the following variables:

Personal Benefit (P) – what the individual gets out of an action

Inclusive Benefit (Pi) – what the individual gets out of an action plus the benefits to family members

Personal Cost (C) – the price an individual pays for an action

Inclusive Cost (Ci) – the price an individual pays plus the price to family members

  1. Operational Altruism P < C

An observer sees the short-term cost to the altruist exceeding the short-term payoff to the altruist. This perception is what biologists wish to explain.

  1. True Altruism Pi < Ci

Actual inclusive cost exceeds inclusive personal reward. Note that neither intention nor actual benefit to other is required. In kin selection Case 1 applies and Case 2 does not.

  1. “Ethical” Altruism actor intends Pi < Ci

Willed inclusive cost exceeds willed inclusive reward. Note that no actual benefit to self or other is calculated. Only intention matters. This may be adaptive if Case 3 leads to Case 1, but not Case 2. In other words, your conscious state must affect your behavior in order for ethical altruism to have effects in evolutionary biology. You cannot deny free will AND claim that ethical altruism is a product of natural selection.

  1. Theological Altruism Cases 2 and 3 together

Personal sacrifice and benefit to other are both intended and achieved. Theological altruism here suggests that something is independently justified, both as means and as ends. You are willing to help at cost to self and you manage to do so. Note that future rewards can void theological altruism so constructed.

  1. Signaled Altruism causing the appearance of Case 1

Giving the signal that you are altruistic may be beneficial in creating relationships independent of whether Cases 1 and 2 objectively apply.  It does not matter here whether the signal is true or a lie. Biologists speak of costly signaling, when an individual invests substantially in an interaction (mating, community membership), demonstrating wealth (extra resources to spend – e.g., Peacock’s tail) or commitment (inability to back out of a deal – e.g., giving up technology to join the Amish). Such signals can be faked. Because costly signals can be associated with joining a group of mutual aid, fake signals represent a common strategy for taking advantage of the group – free riding. This is not to suggest that free riders are common, only that among free riders, fake signals are common.

  1. Adapted Altruism Case 1 plus long-term average NOT Case 2

Past events have led to personal sacrifice beneficial to the long-term interests of self (as gene or lineage [or debatably] population). Group, inter-deme, and kin selection as well as reciprocal altruism fall into Case 6.

Biological Altruism can refer to any biological explanation of Case 1. Generally, these will be adaptive (Case 6) explanations, but others exist as well. Gould’s spandrels (non-adaptive traits coming in on the coat-tails of adaptive traits) and parasitism (adaptive for someone, but not the altruist) come to mind. It’s important to note that natural selection favors parasitism in a very limited way. The parasite’s behavior will tend to be optimized for taking advantage, but the host’s behavior will be optimized for resisting. It’s important to calculate cost and benefit for all parties and watch how the environment shapes each.


We spent most of the discussion speaking about the ethical implications of in-group favoritism and reciprocity. How do we think and feel about moral decisions made for the sake of a community, but at the expense of others? How do we think and feel about conscious manipulation of other people’s unconscious behavioral responses to stimuli? (See Influence by Cialdini and Nudge by Sustein and Thaler)

Issues of inclusive versus exclusive costs and benefits raise a number of social morality questions for theologians as well as biologists. Likewise, thoughts about intention, result, and signalling reveal a great deal about the way we negotiate social interactions and bear further reflection at a number of levels. We discussed the case of inexpensive gifts (paying for dinner on a first date, accepting a flower or book from a Jehovah’s Witness). Should they be accepted? Should they be offered? And how should they be viewed, morally? Do the answers change as a function of how aware giver and receiver are of behavioral economics, game theory, and evolutionary biology?


One thought on “Meeting 4.3 – Biological and Theological Altruism

  1. Pingback: Consent and Baptism | Lucas's Weblog

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