09 Oct 2014: Opinion

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

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
vervet monkeys
Daryona/Creative Commons
Vervet monkeys cry out to alert fellow monkeys to predators even though it calls attention to themselves.
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.

This is a little like biological altruism — intention isn’t important. In order to be altruistic, a creature doesn’t have to intend to be altruistic. To cull half the animals on this planet, we didn’t have to intend to. We did it with
What makes us so good at destroying vast quantities of other creatures is the vast quantity of us.
our eyes closed and our fingers crossed and our minds elsewhere.

Nor did we — whoever we are — choose to swell our own numbers from some 3.7 billion to roughly 7.2 billion. They’re both effects of a cause we don’t understand, which is our nature as a species. Here we all are — whoever we are — and nowhere to be found are all those vanished animals and their doubly vanished, unbred, unborn descendants.

You could argue, I suppose, that doubling the number of humans didn’t require halving the number of animals. Yet think of it this way: Could you cause the human population to double by halving the number of animals on earth? Of course not. But could doubling the number of humans have somehow done away with all those animals? The answer is obviously yes. Point to more immediate causes, like habitat destruction, if you like, but they are merely the effect of our numbers. What makes us so good at destroying such vast quantities of other creatures is simply the vast quantity of us — and who we happen to be.

Here’s who I think we are. We resemble every other species on this planet. None of them seems to be able to favor the well-being of any species but its own. If a species escapes its natural bounds — think Japanese knotweed or lionfish or even whitetail deer — it spreads until it reaches its natural or unnatural limit.

It’s easy to think, “Well, of course. No other species could conceive of being altruistic to the creatures it shares the earth with. No other species has a conscience or the intelligence to act upon it.” But I see no signs that we do either. No matter how hard you work, personally, for the conservation of other species, no matter how many groups we form or how much we protest or how much money we raise, I see no sign that humans, as a species, are able to act differently than any other species would act if it got the chance. Our vast cultural intelligence has freed us, so far, from the strict boundaries of habitat, freed us to behave, in other words, with absolutely unregulated, unconstrained self-interest — just like any other species on this planet.

Humans have always had a hard time thinking of themselves as creatures, strictly akin in nearly every way to all the other creatures on this planet.
Is there anything inside us that might allow us to behave altruistically, and consciously so, toward the rest of life on earth?
We’ve always insisted on our specialness. But we’re special in ways that have freed us — so far — only to behave as if we’re utterly ordinary. We turn out to be creatures who can be restrained, collectively, only in the ways that every other creature is restrained, by scarcity and death. As a species, we appear to be utterly incapable of self-restraint. This is something we share with every other organism on this planet.

I felt a sharp stab of pain and anger when I read the World Wildlife Fund report detailing the demise of so much earthly life. And I began to wonder: In what index of human motives or emotions — the forces that shape our behavior — will we find the one that truly binds us to the other species on this planet? Is there anything inside us that might allow us to behave altruistically — and consciously so — toward the rest of life on earth?

The answer seems very grim to me. Whoever we are as persons, as nations, even as civilizations, what really matters, when it comes to protecting other

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life-forms, is who we are as a species. Yet it appears to me that nothing in our makeup allows us to respond effectively to this terrible census of the animal dead. Logic doesn’t deter us. Neither does emotion. Self-interest is an abstraction — it barely crosses social or racial boundaries, never mind the boundary of species. Economic motives are far too easily perverted. They’re how we got here in the first place. So far, it looks as though the only real restraint will turn out to be scarcity and death — two things we’ve committed ourselves to defeating.

Why bother to say these things? What good does it do to sound so grim? For one thing, I know almost nothing grimmer than the fact — not the thought or the idea — that so much life and diversity has simply vanished. For another, we need to know just how hard the job really is if we’re going to do anything about preserving the life and diversity that remains. For this is the background condition of the human condition: Solve global warming, eliminate the nuclear threat, and we will still have to confront the vastness of our species and the way it diminishes, without thinking, all the other species around it.

POSTED ON 09 Oct 2014 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Science & Technology Sustainability North America 

COMMENTS


An interesting and important topic. Thanks.

It seems to me that since capitalist societies are by design altruism challenged, there are very powerful socio-economic forces dedicated to endless growth. The end game is approaching, and the trajectory is looking very bad. To my mind, the simplest and possibly most effective thing we can do individually and societally is limit population. [This also might be a decent metric for earth-centric altruism.]

On the other hand, the need for this is getting so apparent, I'm not sure how much longer this will count as altruism. At some point most of us will realize we have irreversibly compromised the only planet we have and this is not in the best interest of ourselves and certainly our progeny.
Posted by hugh wright on 09 Oct 2014


The responsibility for population growth rests with those who have had more than the replacement number (~2) of children. The "we" does not apply to others.
Posted by Robin Datta on 10 Oct 2014


I share the author's concern and anguish for the planet's diminishing wildlife. Still, I think he presents an incomplete picture on two key points. Adding to the human population does have an impact, certainly, but it is neither linear nor equal across developed and developing countries. Second, the statement that we resemble other species in that none of them "seems to be able to favor the well-being of any species but its own". This reflects a superficial understanding of human and animal psychology and the evolution of moral behaviour, leave alone examples of altruism, coexistence, commensalism, and symbiosis, from which there is a lot to learn and emulate.
Posted by T R Shankar Raman on 11 Oct 2014


I agree with you completely. We are human animals and denying that does no one any good, neither us, nor other species. I run a volunteer online magazine, voices for biodiversity, that has as its goal to share stories from people around the globe who DO care beyond our own human species and who endeavor to take a hard look at what we, as humans, need to do if other species are to survive. Choosing to be childfree, for example, is a great option for reducing our carbon legacy and ecological footprint and helping other species. As a medical anthropologist I also watch emerging zoonotic diseases with a calculating eye. When a species exceeds its carrying capacity, as Homo sapiens has, corrections occur in the form of disease or starvation. Ebola, now raging in West Africa, comes to mind. Are humans going to suffer a die-off? We seem unable to practice self-restraint. Some believe we will die-off only after taking out even more species than we already have. Others believe we'll take ourselves out in the process. And some believe we'll be replaced by trans-human hybirds and that this new trick of evolution will solve our and other species predicament. Obviously, no one knows the outcome of our overpopulation and over-consumption at this time. Adding your voice to the voice of others addressing this problem may not be a solution in and of itself, but it could help us build a coalition of people who care beyond our own species.
Posted by Tara Lumpkin on 13 Oct 2014


It's the exception that proves the rule. Exceptions exist among hum-animals as well as our other familial species. However, they are truly few and far-between. In order to feel not just think about altruistic behavior (an essential ingredient in my mind) is to see other, as self. We can do that and do for our immediate biological family yet, the majority of "us' do not feel that way about different cultures, religions or nations so it will probably take many more destructive generations before we feel that about our other animal relatives.The first step is very early education that provides knowledge of and about self and others. I do think we can create a gentler relationship with other planet inhabitants articles such as yours need to reach the believers and the non- believers!
Barri Wilner Sanders
Posted by Barri Sanders on 14 Oct 2014


I completely agree with you. Here, we are supposedly working for the protection and conservation of other species throughout the globe but, alas our intentions are somehow selfish. Especially the human wildlife conflict, which have a negative impact on people who are the victim of it. In such cases we completely forget the state of attacking animal and also, just by the fear of an animal roaming freely, the sense of saving only our communities evokes automatically.
In fact the conservation campaigns cannot taste success without the habitat preservation with is hampered due to the surging human population. What is really needed is a good awareness and a great implementation (of law and measures) at the ground level all over the world for the coexistence.
Posted by Chitranshi Dhami on 29 Oct 2014


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verlyn klinkenborgABOUT THE AUTHOR
Verlyn Klinkenborg is the author of numerous books, most recently More Scenes from the Rural Life and Several Short Sentences About Writing. He was a member of the editorial board of the New York Times from 1997 to 2013. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about animal "personhood" and explored what DNA analyses reveal about humans' toll on wildlife.
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