Human Interest

altruism, nice person

Does Altruism Signify Frailty?

August 07, 2009 07:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
After all the research done on kindness, competition and survival, are we any closer to understanding the basic question: do nice guys always finish last?

Kindness Gets a Makeover

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A new book, “On Kindness,” written by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, explores “why we generally see independent people as strong and charitable people as dumber or less developed,” writes Ilana Simons, for Psychology Today.

In a radio interview for the NPR program “On Point,” Phillips said that the more focused our culture is on competition and success, the more likely we are to associate being kind with being weak.

Phillips explained that acting kind toward someone else involves recognizing his weaknesses, and forces us to look inward at our own frailties. “If you want a world without vulnerability in it. You have to drop kindness,” Phillips told “On Point.”

Still, people do find pleasure in kindness; ironically, this seems to be another reason for repressing it. “There are situations in which one feels moved to be kind and one isn’t kind.” Philips told “On Point” his mission isn’t to demand people be kinder to one another, but to “free them” to the kindness they’ve taught themselves to suppress.

The Selfish Gene,” written by Richard Dawkins over three decades earlier, looks at kindness and selfishness through an evolutionary lens. In 2007, Dawkins read an excerpt from his book for the BBC and explained his theory: “Our genes have survived and in some cases for millions of years in a highly competitive world … [therefore] a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness.”

Kate Douglas, a writer for the New Scientist, noted that Dawkins, like many people, does not believe in altruism without strings, such as reciprocity or a hidden reward. In fact, Dawkins insists his vision for his book was to “try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”

While the scientific validity of Dawkins theories was accepted, perhaps without merit, according to findingDulcinea, researchers at the University of Western Ontario may be closer to finding a real “selfish gene.” This is a gene that prevents worker bees from reproducing, so that male drones must mate with the queen bee. However the process itself is one called “reproductive altruism.”

Those who do believe in altruism argue that it could have evolved not from individual genetic competition but from “a process of genetic and cultural co-evolution.” In other words, altruism enabled “social cohesion,” which then facilitated one group’s survival over another, reported Douglas.

Moreover, brain imaging research has identified a gene called AVPR1. According to Douglas, subjects with the AVPR1 gene are more altruistic and also “more susceptible to the effects vasopressin, a feel-good hormone implicated in social bonding.” Therefore, even the possible biological proof for altruism raises doubts over truly unconditional kindness.

Opinion & Analysis: Random acts of kindness

Gretchen Rubin, author of the Happiness Project, believes in kindness, though not the random kind. According to Rubin, the very advantage of random acts of kindness—that they are done annonymously, and eliminate the possibility of gratitude—is sometimes a disadvantage for the person on the receiving end.

She says, “If someone randomly does something kind for me, I’m on guard.” While random acts of kindness may make the doer happier, it might be at the expense of the person receiving the act. They may feel confused, tricked or worried that they are expected to respond with an equally kind gesture.

Reference Material: Biological altruism

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy finds several examples of altruistic behavior among animals. One example is vampire bats, which “regurgitate blood and donate it to other members of their group.” The article also explores the conflict between Darwinian principles and the concept of altruism, as well as the differences between altruism in animals and humans.


NEXT: Death by Politeness: How Brits on the Titanic Met Their Doom >
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