Altruism is unselfish concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and central to many religious traditions. In English, this idea was often described as the Golden rule of ethics. In Buddhism it is considered a fundamental property of human nature.1

Altruism focuses on a motivation to help others or a want to do good without reward...Pure altruism is giving without regard to reward or the benefits of recognition. The concept has a long history in philosophical and ethical thought, and has more recently become a topic for psychologists, sociologists, evolutionary biologists, and ethologists.1

In the science of ethology (the study of behavior), and more generally in the study of social evolution, altruism refers to behavior by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor.1

Biological Altruism

Altruistic behaviour is common throughout the animal kingdom, particularly in species with complex social structures. For example, vampire bats regularly regurgitate blood and donate it to other members of their group who have failed to feed that night, ensuring they do not starve. In numerous bird species, a breeding pair receives help in raising its young from other ‘helper’ birds, who protect the nest from predators and help to feed the fledglings. Vervet monkeys give alarm calls to warn fellow monkeys of the presence of predators, even though in doing so they attract attention to themselves, increasing their personal chance of being attacked. In social insect colonies (ants, wasps, bees and termites), sterile workers devote their whole lives to caring for the queen, constructing and protecting the nest, foraging for food, and tending the larvae. Such behaviour is maximally altruistic: sterile workers obviously do not leave any offspring of their own — so have personal fitness of zero — but their actions greatly assist the reproductive efforts of the queen.2

An interesting example of altruism is found in the cellular slime moulds, such as Dictyostelium mucoroides. These protists live as individual amoebae until starved, at which point they aggregate and form a multicellular fruiting body in which some cells sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of other cells in the fruiting body. Social behavior and altruism share many similaraties to the interactions between the many parts (cells, genes) of an organism, but are distinguished by the ability of each individual to reproduce indefinitely without an absolute requirement for its neighbors.1

Infants as young as 18 months show altruistic behaviour, suggesting humans have a natural tendency to be helpful, German researchers have discovered. In experiments reported in the journal Science, toddlers helped strangers complete tasks such as stacking books. Young chimps did the same, providing the first direct evidence of altruism in non-human primates. Altruism may have evolved six million years ago in the common ancestor of chimps and humans, the study suggests.3

Interstellar Altruism

Encoding Altruism: The Art and Science of Interstellar Message Composition workshop focused on two broad themes: first, the interface of art, science, and technology in interstellar message design; and second, how to communicate concepts of altruism in interstellar messages.

Conjunctio Oppositorum

Usually some narcissist comes along and takes advantage of [the altruist]. The Shakers had a philosophy of life that dealt with this. They planted three fields of any crop, knowing that they would sell the produce of one, keep one for themselves and the last one would be eaten by crows and thieves.4



  1. Altruism
  2. Biological Altruism
  3. Altruism 'in-built' in humans
  4. Is Altruism the opposite of Narcissism?

What Is Altruism?
Loving others as oneself