Altruism, Heroism, and Evolution– Where are Animals in the Mix? (Week Five, Blog Two)


Gary Larson Evolution

Today we began discussing Jane Goodall’s essay Love and Compassion. The first concept that was brought to our attention was the idea of altruism. In her case: how a chimpanzee may have an unselfish concern for another chimpanzee who is not of their immediate family or gene pool, or in our case: how a human might exhibit that same quality towards a stranger and in some cases behave heroically. Jane has chosen to illuminate an aspect of humanity through her observations of chimpanzees.

What is it that make humans and animals share this quality? Is it a form of love? Or is it a form of social evolution? If it is a product of our evolution (remember, Ms. Goodall points out that, “humans are capable of performing acts of self-sacrifice with full knowledge of the costs we may have to bear, not only at the time, but at some future date.”) What makes this issue resonate is the fact that we live in societies where we are required to do smaller acts of self-sacrifice on a daily basis to ensure smooth functioning.

We often take the successful functioning of our “society“– the fact that we as humans are living in cities, towns, and communities– for granted. We tend to ignore the oddity that humans have organized in massive cooperative groups of unrelated individuals (a.k.a. societies!) Very few organisms create or function in societies, in fact if memory serves, I believe only insects do this with any amount of success… which may be why Stephen Jay Gould, in his essay Nonmoral Nature focused on the ichneumon wasps, beyond his use of them as an example of what the 19th century theologians were struggling with: “If God is benevolent and the Creation displays his “power, wisdom and goodness,” then why are we surrounded with pain, suffering, and apparently senseless cruelty.”

Gould cautions us to not measure the animal world by our moral yard stick. That we anthropomorphize the behavior of animals when we see them in terms of our values of good and evil. That, “Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people,” but not to be applied to the world of animals.

What is by far the most bizarre footnote to add to this discussion is that we, at various points in a not too distant history, put animals on trial (animal trials) — Yes, we dressed them in clothing, trotted or paced them into a court of law, and with a jury not of their peers in a species sense, we judged and convicted them of crimes! The list includes pigs, donkeys, and termites. So we have tried animals in the courts: various species, in various countries, and for various crimes.

How do you feel about how we relate to animals? Is there merit to observing their behavior and applying it to observations of human behavior as Goodall does? How about the observations that Darwin makes in The Evidence of the Descent of Man from Some Lower Form?

Perhaps we should approach our understanding of animal relationships with the following quote in mind?

“Objectivity cannot be equated with mental blankness; rather, objectivity resides in recognizing your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny — and also in a willingness to revise or abandon your theories when the tests fail (as they usually do).” — Stephen Jay Gould


16 Responses to “Altruism, Heroism, and Evolution– Where are Animals in the Mix? (Week Five, Blog Two)”

  1. A very good article on evolution of altruism in human society. I think the degree and nature of altruism displayed by human beings also evolved a lot. Human beings are more focussed on a fellow person now-a-days. And, more caring societies are bound to improve more than the less caring ones.

    I found good references in both “The God Delusion” and “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins on this topic.

  2. I believe in some ways we relate to animals but not much. I feel that with basic natural instincts we are similar especially with chimpanzees because we evolve from them. With the rest of our behavior I feel we are not. One natural instinct is the need to pass on our genes. People who succeed in their fields of work and get loads of money tend to get the pick of the opposite sex to pass on their genes. Some people are mean, evil and cut throat to do it. But don’t deer and other mammals with antlers beat each other up for mates? I believe it is somewhat of the same concept. We fight for our mates just as animals do.


  3. 3 derekroz

    I think humans and animals display altruism [or sometimes lack of] because of the environment they might have grown up in. A person might have had a younger sibling that was always protected by an older sibling, and the defensive/psychological instinct of the older sibling may be more prominent than others without siblings or people they shared a bond with. I do think humans have some similarities to animals, but only very limited similarities such as mating or survival instincts.

  4. We humans relate to animals and have similarites that are similar, and I think as scientists study that they realize exactly what we have in common. We all have insincts in life, same with animals. Just like Jane Goodall was trying to explain in her story, chimps will be kind and help others even if they don’t know them, and we humans do the same. Refering to what Sam commented, I agree with the idea that animals and humans fight for their mates. I think that humans and animals have certain similarites, like in the way that they are created and their natural instincts.

  5. 5 brianpolashuk

    I believe in some ways, humans have similarities to animals. I believe you can connect several personality traits that are SIMILAR, because they ensure the survival of the species. I also believe it is very difficult to judge or make conclusions about how similar animals and people think or feel. No body knows what a lion is saying to another when he roars. Yes, we can make our guesses due to the situation, but can we put the noise into words? I don’t think so. I believe that all species are born with characteristics that they learn from their environment and family much like we do. In Compassion and Love, Goodall states that “For the most part, relationships between the members of a community are relaxed and friendly, and we see frequent expressions of caring, helping, compassion, altruism, and most definitely a form of love”. Immediately we jump to the conclusion that humans and chimps are exactly the same, we evolved from the same species and that everything about us is some way inter related. I personally believe that these traits have been developed due to their environment. They need to be caring and helping in order for their basic survival as a group. In response to Sam, I think that sense of “fighting for mates” is a direct result of the feeling of compassion. I also think our perceptions and personal beliefs will have an impact on what we call “compassion” or “love”. Just throwing a question out there….How many people cried at the end of King Kong? How many people had sympathy for this gorilla? While some may point out that he was completely compassionate and saved the woman, others would point out the destruction and pure violence he caused.

  6. thanks for taking the time to read to my comments and respond 🙂

  7. 7 jacksonru

    Altruism is a big part of being a human or animal. I believe that it is very natural for them to be primitavely protective even if the person is not related to them. Compassion, sympathy,instincts these are things that both groups live by. Mark Twain pointed out some of the bad things and Jane Goodall pointed out the good ones. It has been proven that humans evolved from animals so I think that our mind sets or psychological evaluations evolved but we still have the same fundamentals.

  8. Humans are somehow related to animals, but they are different. They are all God’s creatures from dust, but humans are made in God’s image. There are two differences between humans and animals. When God created humans, He breathed into them. They received understanding and self-awareness. They had an understanding to know God and they were aware of what is good and bad. After humans sinned, these two are not as strong as before. We can see that many people believe in God, because they have an understanding to know God. Humans also know what is good and bad. They know killing, lying, raping, ect are bad; and love, patience, peace, ect are good. Animals do not have these two. Of course, some animals show some love…, but they do not know what is good and bad. They are two forces that existed in the universe that attract people to go two ways. The demonic force attracts people to put them lower, like the animals (humans are higher. We are called to be the sons or daughters of God. ) The force from the only God attracts people to draw close to Him. When God created humans, he also gave humans free-will, so they can choose. Therefore, some people decided to go the wrong way. As a result, their understanding and self awareness are mostly gone. Some people choose to go to God, He then teaches them about the real truth.

  9. Humans are related to animals in some ways. Humans have evolved from animals and it have been proven so a relation between them still exists. The difference is that a human displays an evolved version of what animals do.

  10. 10 nabihaahmed

    Reading and going through what everybody has written, I came to the conclusion, that they all believe humans to be linked to animals a little bit. As for my thinking about the relation between animals and humans is similar. Although we do have our differences, major differences, that affect our lifestyles a lot. Humans are the more intellectual as far as our knowledge goes. There is no possible way to understand the exact thinking of animals. Jane Goodall definitely did go though with an experiment in Gombe with the chimps, her description of Mel and Spindle’s relationship was what got to me. I realized that chimps could be affectionate just like us, but what do we really understand about them. All we see is that they are care giving and thoughtfully and that is it. Animals are also used to compare and contrast the genetic make up between animals and humans. Animals are closely related to humans as studies have shown, closer than plants, but their intellectual level of thinking is much more complex than we think it to be. Why? Because we will never be able to clearly communicate with animals.

  11. I believe animals and humans do share common characteristics since we evolved from them. I agree that we get our basic instincts from chimpanzees but nothing more. I also agree with Sam when saying that one of these natural instincts is the want to preserve our genes. I feel that although it is impossible to clearly communicate with them, animals and humans could possibly think the same thoughts when it comes to certain things such as saving a family member, or any one they see. I think animals feel compassion, it’s just hard for us to be completely sure.

  12. I disagree with Sam with the belief about humans evovling from chimps. I believe that we were created by God. It has been something I grew up knowing, but I do understand the history of evolution. On the other hand, I do agree with Sam about picking our own mates. We do act like animals when it comes to finding our mates. Some humans will fight to get the person to procreate with. I also think that we are like animals with survival instincts. If there was a need for a human to find a way to live in the wilderness for days without any technology, clean water, or packaged food, I don’t have a doubt in my mind that 95% of those people will survive. They will find smaller animals to feed on and search for water to drink and shelter to sleep under. Animals have to do those things every day to survive.

  13. 13 minch6

    I believe that animals and humans are alike. Both humans and animals have natural instincts. They both would protect their family as best as they can. They are kind and thoughtful most of the time. Although there are many similarities i think there are some differences. How do scientists really know what is going on in animals minds? With studies going on now i think we are getting closer and closer to understanding animals and we are starting to see how they can relate to humans.

  14. 14 moraa

    I think there is up to a point where humans and animals can be related. Chimps and Dogs for instance do things that humans also do like in Goodall’s article; that chimps help out other chimps even though they aren’t related. Well that’s exactly what humans do they help others in need without asking for rewards. Dogs can sense when their owner is leaving or arriving. To say that animals don’t have knowledge for feelings is false, they might not have all the characteristics of a human such as revenge and hatred but they have a few.

  15. 15 meganptaszenski

    I also find no fault in comparing animals to humans. I believe that when comparing chimpanzees to humans, as Jane Goodall does, we can see how both animals and humans share the idea of altruism for others that may not be in their immediate family. At the samt time however, we must ask ourselves if animals realize the consequences to their actions; humans are able to perform acts with the knowledge of what the conquences may be but, animals however may not fully understand these consequences.

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