The Spirit of Giving

December 8, 2010

Brit Trogen

Science in Seconds Blog


The Christmas season is upon us once again, and with it comes mistletoe, the questionable beverage called "egg-nog," and endless proclamations that we should give charitably to our fellow man. The Scrooges of the world tend to reject this suggestion. What's the point of helping others? It's not kin selection, that pays of with the survival of relatives who share your genes. There's no biological reason to be truly altruistic. Humbug!


But true altruism is a biological fact of nature, even in the animal kingdom. This was first observed in 2007, when a group of chimps in Uganda was found helping unrelated chimps, and even human handlers, with no desire for payback. Acts of generosity and apparent selflessness, like helping to reach an out-of-reach stick, or lifting a chain on a door to allow access to food, struck a blow to the picture of the purely selfish animal.


Evolutionary theory predicts that these altruistic behaviors should be relatively rare in nature—a prediction that animal studies have found to be mostly true—but the fact remains that they exist. In humans, for example, the altruism phenomenon is surprisingly widespread.


 New research from the University of Nottingham provides a tantalizing suggestion why: we find it sexy. In a study published in the British Journal of Psychology, 70 identical and 87 non-identical female twin pairs completed questionaires on altruism. In addition to measuring their own levels of selflessness, they were asked to chart how desirable they found this trait in potential mates. The result was a genetic correlation in both the subject's own altruism, their preference for a mate, and even more telling, a correlation between the two traits. 


This suggests that genes may influence altruistic tendencies in the population, as well as how attractive an individual finds this trait in others. Sexual selection could be helping the "selfless genes" stay present in the population.


So, the nice guy could finish... first? Of course, it's not a sure thing. But the next time you want to impress that hottie, try giving change to the homeless.



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