It’s not only orangutans who are impressing researchers and news readers this week; charitable rats are making headlines after a study published in PLoS Biology proffers evidence that “rats who received help in the past were more likely to help another unknown partner.” This is the first evidence in non-humans of “reciprocal altruism,” helpful acts that are “contingent upon the likelihood of getting help in return.” A PLoS press release adapted by ScienceDaily explains:
In this study, Norway rats received help gaining food from a partner who pulled a stick to produce the food. Rats could therefore be grouped into two classes: those that had previously received help and those that had not. The rats who had previously been helped were then more likely to help another unknown partner receive food.
Reciprocal altruism is just one tactic for getting what one wants or needs.
The find is certainly intriguing, although the press release gives it an evolutionary interpretation (unsurprisingly). First stating that such reciprocal altruism in humans can be explained “by cultural experience as well as by natural selection,” the release adds that “if similar reactions to anonymous experience can be found in non human animals [such as was found], an evolutionary explanation would be far more likely.”
Of course, reciprocal altruism—which is not truly altruistic, since it is performed out of selfish expectation for reciprocity—can be explained without evolution; reciprocal altruism is just one tactic for getting what one wants or needs, and such tactics (respectable and otherwise) have been around since the Fall (Genesis 3) or longer.
True altruism, on the other hand, is done without any expectation or hope for reward. Such altruism lacks an evolutionary explanation. In this way, the millions of people who inconvenience themselves without compensation doing charitable work are a testament to a moral law that compels some humans to unselfish action—and flies in the face of evolution’s central tenet of self-help. Of course, the most perfect case of altruism is given by Christ, who laid down His life for those that hated Him and could benefit Him in no way, praise God.
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