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3/27/04

The Altruism of Vampire Bats

Mind Shadows______The Altruism of Vampire Bats

  • Altruism (al' troo-iz-em) n. regard for the welfare of others; benevolent practices. al' tru-is' tic, adj. al'tru-is' ti-cal-ly, adv.

  • Here is a word that evokes a puzzle for sociobiologists. If the gene is selfish, to use Richard Dawkins' concept, why do we witness unselfish behavior? * Altruism involves helping others at the cost of our time, our effort, and our resources. Sociobiologists puzzle over this behavior because they see individuals of species struggling for self-survival, and it simply does not promote that end.

    Yet altruism is not a phenomenon observed only among human beings. Many animals live social lives, in bonded cooperation. They lavish devotion on offspring and spend hours grooming others. Why?

    At one time, speculation had altruism as behavior for the greater good of the group, a position held by many during the early Twentieth Century. Since then, however, it has fallen out of favor. Of course, on the surface such behavior would seem to promote the survival of a species. If individuals give up their own lives to protect the lives of others, this would help insure continuance of their kind into the next generation.

    With a deeper look, the explanation appears less plausible. Assume a tribe of wolves in which each member catches rabbits for every other wolf. Yes, the pack would live in harmony, but not for long. Assume now that an interloper arrives and when he is fed, he never bothers to feed others. He simply does not hunt, but waits for his meal. He has more time on his hands, including time to mate with alpha bitches. His pups will inherit this selfish gene, and they will again pass it on. Over generations the pack eventually becomes selfish as the altruistic individuals die out, unable to compete against those who take rather than give.

    Current sociobiologists find that the selfish gene helps explain altruism. Your children are the only way your genes can survive beyond your lifetime. Parental care, then, becomes an important means to accomplish this. The behavior also works with kin. Monkeys share food and other resources with their relatives because they thereby have a better chance of getting more of their genes into the next generation. Of course, recognition is key to altruism. The individual must be able to perceive his kin, an ability that not all animals have. Primates do possess it, as well as elephants, dolphins, and vampire bats.

    These bats are tiny and cannot go without blood or a meal beyond two consecutive nights, otherwise they die. Blood meals, though, are usually feasts, and more than any individual bat needs at one time. They are shared between vampires in an arrangement wherein score is kept--who owes what to whom.

    Priest and scientist, Pierre Tielhard de Chardin would have had a different view of altruism, and his position on reflective thought sets him apart from modern sociobiologists. He maintained that reflection is what distinguishes man from other species. He argued that a discontinuity exists between man and the other creatures. As I say in the article on him, "If he is right, then sociobiologists are wrong." (See Tielhard de Chardin, 21 March 2004.)

    Apart from de Chardin's theories, an issue remains. Clearly, we cannot, must not, confine ourselves to a moral view circumscribed by genetics. That served for tribes, but will not do so for the future of humankind. Survival-of-the-fittest has become part of economic theory, with corporations vying to become top dog, only taking care of their own, else go under. Nations are manipulated by them while Islamic fundamentalists see a new kind of threat, dollar imperialism, and retaliate with terrorism. (Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal and Pervez Musharaff's hold on power does not inspire confidence.) In the meantime, the planet gets warmer, the rivers dirtier, and the skies greyer.

    Is the brain hard-wired, as many sociobiologists contend? If so, we are doomed. But I don't think it is. I hold that our minds are conditioned by our beliefs.** We are our meanings. Evil can only prevail if good people do nothing.

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