In every human society, altruism, a selfless concern for the welfare of others, is considered a noble virtue. Being altruistic and helping others has great implications for the human race. As in the past, altruism will affect the very survival of the human race. As a species, can we choose to go the selfish Neanderthal way or the more altruistic Cro-Magnon way?
In every human society, altruism, a selfless concern for the welfare of others is considered a noble virtue. There are people who go out of their ways, disregarding any expectation of reward and even at great risks to themselves to help others in need. Some of these people are noticed and considered heroes, while many of these unsung heroes are never noticed. Sacrificing oneself for the greater good of many is considered the ultimate act of self-negation and celebrated as the true mark of a hero.
Love, especially romantic love is typically seen to be the privilege of the higher primates, humans. When animals are fiercely attached to another one of their species, doting, grooming, and engaged in passionate lovemaking, they are said to be in heat, instinctually reacting to a rush of hormones.
What would animals reckon if we told them that only the higher primates of the family Hominidae could practice altruism? Probably they would have a good giggle. Altruism is not uncommon in the animal world. Even bacteria exhibit altruism.
Salmonella bacteria sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the other members of their species. Entering the digestive tract of humans, they discover a hostile world as other bacteria have dug themselves into strategic positions. Then the salmonella “select” one in six microbes during cell division as a reconnaissance party. By digging into the human intestinal tissues, they cause the human defence system to flood the tract with repellents. They die as a result of this, but this clears away all the other bacteria, when massive colonization by other salmonella can begin.
Does love require self-sacrifice?
Ask any mother and she will tell how motherly love involves self-sacrifice. Research by Felix Warneken and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology show that Chimpanzees often help other species, also humans without any expectation of reward. Dogs often adopt orphaned human babies, squirrels, cats, and even tiger cubs. Dolphins habitually support sick or injured animals by swimming under them and pushing them to the surface to help them breathe. One extreme example of altruism is the Stegodyphus spider, with a unique system of matriphagy. When the Stegodyphus spider offspring is mature enough, it actually eats the mother.
The great evolutionist Charles Darwin in his Theory of Natural Selection, claimed that each species survives by being selfish and fiercely competitive. But, he also wrote in The Descent of Man (1871) “I have myself seen a dog, who never passed a cat who lay sick in a basket without giving her a few licks with his tongue. “ As a true scientist, he even considered these observations “insuperable, and actually fatal to my whole theory.”
Have you ever considered why Neanderthal Man became extinct, while the physically weaker Cro-Magnon man survived and evolved?
James Shreeve, in The Neanderthal Enigma: Solving the Mystery of Modern Human Origins. New York: William Morrow & Co, 1995, tries to answer this question. He says that Neanderthal man was a prehistoric egomaniac. The inability to behave in an altruistic and cooperative manner towards other Neanderthals, especially the females and children of their own clans turned into a gigantic disadvantage.
The poignant cave paintings at Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain show a distinct deviance from the “Ugh! I’ll kill you”, approach of the Neanderthal Man. Women are venerated; animals are not seen as food alone, but as mythological being with a celestial connection.
Human culture arose from the Cro-Magnon man’s (and woman’s) ability to share experience, artefacts and values with others. Innovations and synergy developed in the Cro-Magnon man and helped them survive and evolve.
Being altruistic and helping others has great implications for the human race. As in the past, altruism will affect the very survival of the human race. We fare well, if we care.
As a species, can we choose to go the Neanderthal way or the Cro-Magnon way? Yes, but the choice is always individual.