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Why is it that sometimes people are good to others even if it is to their own detriment? What biological reason is behind our desire to be good to other people, and does true altruism really exist?

he biological explanation

Ever since Charles Darwin traveled to South America and wrote The Origin of Species, the notion of natural selection has directed the fields of biology, sociology, and the study of the human race. In his book he concluded that the fastest, most cunning animals that are best adapted to their environments survive, reproduce, and shape the face of their species. The others die off.

We’re taught that animals are single-minded creatures, driven only to survive and reproduce. Where then, do acts of kindness fit into play? Can people do things purely out of the goodness of their heart, no strings attached? Or are actions solely motivated by gaining in the long run?

Scientist George R. Price explored the idea of why animals, and even some living beings as simple as amoeba, sometimes stick together rather than fight for life on their own. Why do people live in families, or are compelled to save the lives of others while risking their own lives, Price asked himself.

Price showed that the instinct to save a family member actually stems from the fact that people share genes. In essence, saving the life of a family member, because they have the same genes, is like saving your own genes and perpetuating your own survival. The natural desire to save a sibling is eight times stronger than that of saving a cousin because cousins only have an eighth of the same genes, according to Price’s formula.

Does true altruism exist?

What Price’s formula doesn’t account for, however, are the examples of true selflessness, when saving someone else’s life doesn’t directly benefit oneself. What about the famous example of the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his troop, or the person who pushes someone out of the path of an oncoming train only to be killed?

According to a 2006 study by German researchers, altruism was seen in people as young as toddlers who would help other people stack books, according to an article posted by the BBC. Young chimps would even help people stack books, indicating that altruism is not a uniquely human feature.

Even among an organism as basic as an amoeba, scientists have seen the single-celled organisms sacrifice themselves in order to advance the group. In this case, altruism is the means by which the group can continue to exist.

In a recent episode of Radiolab, the subject of goodness was explored. The place that Price fell short is in answering why people go out on a limb for people who they are not related to. Why do people risk their lives for people who are not relatives, who will not perpetuate any shared genes? In fact, by saving the life of another person, that person’s genes make it on to reproduce and survive, while the hero who took the risk may not make it. No Price formula can explain away this type of kindness.

Examples of pure goodness

In the episode “The Good Show” of Radiolab, a woman who received a Carnegie Hero Award was interviewed for her act of extreme braveness. While in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Lora Shrake saw a woman being gored by a nearly 1,000 pound bull on the opposite side of an electric fence. She climbed the fence, electrocuting herself, and began to attack the bull in the face with a metal pipe, distracting it long enough for the other woman to get to safety.

Another example of extreme selflessness and heroism is 50-year-old Wesley James Autrey. In his interview with Radiolab, Autrey shared his story. In 2007 Autrey was standing on a subway platform with his daughters in New York when he saw a convulsing man fall onto the tracks. Autrey left his daughters on the platform and jumped onto the tracks to try and pull the man to safety.

When it became apparent that he could not move the man, rather than leave him on the tracks, Autrey laid flat atop the other man to protect him from the 45 subway cars that were headed his way. Neither man was injured in the incident.

But what drove Autrey to momentarily leave his own children to save the life of a stranger is a question that science has yet to find a biological reason to explain. The only explanation Autrey gave Radiolab is that it was his destiny to save this man.

The Carnegie Hero Fund told Radiolab it has no problem finding people who perform these acts of heroism each year. In fact, so many people risk their own lives each year, they had to narrow the criteria.

So while it may be imbedded in human nature to save family members, scientists are truly at a loss as to why people are so driven to help each other.

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