in biology, altruism is defined as more than just lending the neighbor a cup of sugar. being altruistic means reducing one’s own fitness somehow (although i guess that one cup of sugar might, in some instances, be critical to one’s survival!), maybe passing up on a chance to reproduce or even sacrificing one’s own life for another.

seems like every creature on the planet displays some sort of altruistic behavior. plants put down fewer roots (presumably lowering their fitness) in the presence of related plants; some of the amoebas that live together as slime molds sacrifice their lives for their fellow single-celled family members; and, of course, the classic example of the eusocial insects — ants, bees, etc. — who have whole castes that do not reproduce and simply work their little hearts out raising their sisters (to whom they are more genetically related than they would be to their offspring — it’s complicated — don’t ask! or you can read about it here.). if you’re interested, there’s lots more about altruistic behaviors in animals in wikipedia.

my point is: there must be a whole range of altruism genes out there since all sorts of different creatures display all sorts of different altruistic behaviors. one size does not fit all.

furthermore, i’d be willing to bet the bank (hey — it’s not my money!) that there are different altruism genes in different human populations. or, at least, different frequencies of different altruism genes/alleles in different populations.

i’m sure there’s prolly plenty of overlap ’cause we’re all humans, primates, mammals, vertebrates, tetrapods, laurasians, etc., etc. but the various human populations have had quite unique evolutionary histories, so it shouldn’t be surprising if varying frequencies of/different altruism genes/alleles have been selected for here and there.

think of the fact that different genes for light skin color were selected for in europeans versus east asians and you’ll get my drift.

also think about how different peoples seem to display (at least somewhat) different altruistic behaviors. consider suicide bombers who, perhaps comparable to honey bees or g. sulphureus soldier termites who sacrifice themselves to defend their colonies, seem to be more common in some populations (middle eastern, japanese) than others (although maybe these examples are just artifacts of desperate circumstances).

“genes for suicide missions” won’t just pop up out of the blue, or very easily either i imagine. full hymenopteran sisters share 3/4s of their genes with each other, so it’s not surprising that they’re willing to sacrifice everything for their siblings. but it’s hard to see how such “extreme altruism” genes could arise in humans.

however, it is conceivable that, for example, in arab societies — tribal societies based upon a certain mating pattern (fbd marriage) which creates “bands of brothers” — over one thousand years of tribal warfare might’ve selected for a greater willingness to partake in kamikaze behaviors. remember that inbreeding means the evolution of altruism is easier.

it’s just a thought.

in any case, when we’re talking about genes for altruism, i think we should ask ourselves: which altruism genes?

edit: hamilton got here first, of course (^_^) [pgs. 19-20] –

“I do believe in the existence of considerable genetical differences in altruism, in selfishness, and in many other social attributes in most social animals, and this includes in humans, but this belief is certainly not predicated directly from kin-selection theory. Rather, it is underpinned more by a belief in a complexity of life sufficient to generate genetical variability in a almost everything — the variability we actually see — and also, as will appear in Volume 2 of this compilation, by modern theoretical expectations connected with reciprocation and with disease selection. It certainly does not come from kin selection per se.”

previously: genes for altruism

(note: comments do not require an email. my favorite altruism cartoon. [the only altruism cartoon?])