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Altruism - Social Psychology, Sociobiology, And Altruism Since The 1960s

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Scientific research into altruism has markedly increased since the 1960s. During the 1970s, "helping behavior" and the problem of the "unresponsive bystander" were among the most popular topics in social psychology (see Howard and Pilliavin; Latané and Darley; Wispé). Later C. Daniel Batson stimulated considerable discussion among social psychologists with a series of experiments trying to establish the genuinely altruistic motivation of some helping behavior, explaining it as the product of empathy (see Batson). Others have preferred more egoistic hypotheses, such as the theory that helping behavior is undertaken in order to alleviate the helper's own distress at the suffering of the person to be helped.

In the field of evolutionary biology, 1975 saw the publication of E. O. Wilson's controversial Sociobiology, which set out to explain all social phenomena in terms of underlying biological mechanisms. The following year Richard Dawkins's highly successful popular science book The Selfish Gene was published. It was based on mathematical models developed by William D. Hamilton to explain altruistic behaviors in terms of their benefits to genetically related individuals. Absolutely central to both these books was the puzzle of how self-sacrificing individuals could ever have been successful in the merciless struggle for existence. In short, how could Darwinian evolution produce altruism? Dawkins's straightforward answer was that it could not. According to Dawkins, human beings and other animals are blind robots programmed by their "selfish genes," and any actions that on the surface seem to be examples of "altruism" are in fact driven by the interests of the genes. The existence of apparently altruistic impulses could thus be explained by the fact that an individual who acts in the interests of close relatives (who have many of the same genes) is increasing the chances of copies of the individual's genes persisting into the next generation. Since there is no genuine altruism in nature, Dawkins concluded, the most we can do is to try to teach our children altruism in the hope that they can succeed in rebelling against their genetic inheritance.

Scientific, philosophical, and theological critiques of Dawkins's ideas have been abundant. Some have argued that the idea that genes can have "interests" or be described as "selfish" is misleadingly anthropomorphic. Dawkins has replied that these are only metaphors, but ones that help to communicate the fact that the real business of evolution goes on at the genetic level. But others have questioned whether it has really been established that selection operates exclusively, or even primarily, at the genetic level rather than at the level of individuals, groups, or species (see Sober and Wilson). And many commentators have found the view of human nature implicit in The Selfish Gene to be unacceptably cynical, fatalistic, and pessimistic.

Since the 1990s, although academic discussions have now moved on from the agenda set by sociobiology and The Selfish Gene, the topic of "altruism" has continued to attract a great deal of attention from a wide range of disciplines, including theology, philosophy, evolutionary biology, economics, social psychology, and sociology (see Batson; Mansbridge; Monroe; and for a particularly helpful collection, Post et al.). The same central questions about what science, religion, and philosophy each have to contribute to an understanding of human altruism, and about their ethical and political implications, continue to be vigorously debated.



Batson, C. Daniel. The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1991.

Comte, Auguste. System of Positive Polity; or, Treatise on Sociology, Instituting the Religion of Humanity. Translated by Edward Spencer Beesly et al. 4 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1875–1877.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 1871. Edited and with an introduction by James Moore and Adrian Desmond. London: Penguin, 2004.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Durkheim, Emile. Suicide: A Study in Sociology, 1897. Translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson, edited with an introduction by George Simpson. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952.

Latané, Bibb, and John M. Darley. The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn't He Help? New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1970.

Mill, John Stuart. Auguste Comte and Positivism. London: Trübner, 1865.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality, 1887. Translated by Carol Diethe, edited with an introduction by Keith Ansell-Pearson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Sober, Elliott, and David Sloan Wilson. Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behaviour. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Wispé, Lauren, ed. Altruism, Sympathy, and Helping: Psychological and Sociological Principles. New York and London: Academic Press, 1978.


Blum, Lawrence. "Altruism." In Encyclopedia of Ethics, edited by Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker. New York and London: Routledge, 2001.

Collini, Stefan. "The Culture of Altruism." In Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1850–1930. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Dixon, Thomas. "Herbert Spencer and Altruism: The Sternness and Kindness of a Victorian Moralist." In Herbert Spencer, 1820–1903: Founding Father of Modern Sociology, edited by Greta Jones. London: Galton Institute, 2004.

——. "The Invention of Altruism: Auguste Comte's Positive Polity and Respectable Unbelief in Victorian Britain." In Science and Beliefs: From Natural Philosophy to Natural Science, 1700–1900, edited by David Knight and Matthew Eddy. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2005.

Lustig, Abigail. "Ants and the Nature of Nature in Auguste Forel, Erich Wasmann, and William Morton Wheeler." In The Moral Authority of Nature, edited by Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Maienschein, Jane, and Michael Ruse, eds. Biology and the Foundation of Ethics. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Mansbridge, Jane, ed. Beyond Self-Interest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Maritain, Jacques. Moral Philosophy: An Historical and Critical Survey of the Great Systems. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964. Chapters 11, 12.

Monroe, Kristen Renwick. "A Fat Lady in a Corset: Altruism and Social Theory." American Journal of Political Science 38 (1994): 861–893.

Pearson, Heath. "Economics and Altruism at the Fin de Siècle." In Worlds of Political Economy, edited by Martin J. Daunton and Frank Trentmann. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Post, Stephen G., et al., eds. Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Richards, Robert. Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Especially chapters 4–7.

Schneewind, J. B. Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

Spencer, Herbert. The Data of Ethics. London: Williams and Norgate, 1879.

Wright, Terence R. The Religion of Humanity: The Impact of Comtean Positivism on Victorian Britain. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Thomas Dixon

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"Altruism is an exalted human feeling, and its source is love. Whoever has the greatest share in this love is the greatest hero of humanity; these people have been able to uproot any feelings of hatred and rancor in themselves." (Fethullah Gulen)
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