Vervet monkeys in Tanzania. Vervet monkeys cry out to alert fellow monkeys to predators even though it calls attention to themselves. Photo: Africa Dream Safaris

[Short answer: No.]

By Verlyn Klinkenborg
9 October 2014

(Yale Environment 360) – 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 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 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. [more]

True Altruism: Can Humans Change To Save Other Species? via Wit's End



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