Altruism has always been an intriguing aspect of evolutionary selection. It seems very counterintuitive to have animals sacrificing resources (or even themselves) to save others. Sometimes these acts of valor are committed for animals that are not even the direct descendants or relatives, which makes appear to be even more illogical.
The whole mindset of looking at selfless behavior as something that is evolutionarily altruistic provides an interesting perspective. When we help out a friend or a family member, are we doing that because we care or because of our own evolutionary tendencies?
A recent study conducted by researchers at the Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan shed some interesting light on the whole concept of altruism. Rats, which are generally associated with sewers and filth, were studied to observe their social dynamics. Interestingly, when provided the ability to choose between chocolate and saving another drowning rat, the rats decided to save the other animal. The research project altered the experimental setting to provide insight, and even studied scenarios where the compartment with the drowning rat was actually dry. The rats only opted to open the door for the test subject when it was actually in danger. When provided with two doors (one with chocolate, the other with a drowning rat), the majority of the trial resulted in the experimental rat saving the drowning rat, despite the fact that chocolate is a desirable food source for the animals.
I was surprised by this finding. Though I have studied altruism in many courses, I never expected it to be prevalent in this specific species. This does not directly relate to humans, however the study of altruism has sparked an interesting debate in how it can be applied to human social dynamics. For animal species, altruism and selfless behavior have always been explained as actions that are evolutionarily beneficial for the selfless animal. For humans, the discussion changes. Are we truly dictated by natural selection in the same way as other species? Are our selfless actions actually just for our own evolutionary benefit? The intersection of evolution and social factors have not been fully studied, in humans or any other species.
Regardless, it is intriguing that the rats chose long term resources (the benefit of sociality in rats) over the immediate source of food. Though this project did not conclusively explain any of the aspects of altruism in the rats, it did demonstrate that altruism is a powerful force in decision making, potentially strong enough to dictate our own actions. The study of human evolution is still a young movement, but with the progress that researchers are making with other species, it will be interesting to see what light that may shed upon our understanding over our own evolutionary tendencies.
Harris Jackson (Week 1)
Citations and links:
Bartal, I. B. A., Decety, J., & Mason, P. (2011). Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats. Science, 334(6061), 1427-1430.
Sato, N., Tan, L., Tate, K., & Okada, M. (2015). Rats demonstrate helping behavior toward a soaked conspecific. Animal cognition, 18(5), 1039-1047.