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Brain Scans Raise Questions About Altruism

on January 27, 2007
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Reuters: “Are you a giver? Brain scan finds the truth“

A neuroscience team from North Carolina’s Duke University is reporting results of a brain study on altruistic behavior, according to Reuters’ Maggie Fox. By recording brain functions while study participants played games, the team determined that brain function patterns match up with participants’ descriptions of their own altruism-how selfish or giving they are. But the most interesting comments come in the last few paragraphs:

[Study leader] Huettel believes it is valid to try to assess altruism scientifically.

“It is hardly the case that all altruistic acts come from people who are religiously faithful; there are undoubtedly many altruistic atheists,” [h]e said.

“And, a religious explanation would have considerable difficulty explaining why some animals help others of their species at significant cost or danger to themselves.”

If altruism is merely done to get something in return, what makes it fundamentally different than other animal or human behavior?

Huettel seems to be assuming that the “religious explanation” of altruism is that religious people are altruistic and the unreligious aren’t (though this idea is not without merit). However, one must ask Huettel how altruism can be explained at all without religion; for instance, animals risking their lives to help one another can only be understood as altruism if one invokes a religious explanation (that these animals, created by God [even though not in His image], have some ability to act selflessly). If these animals are merely acting in self-preservation, then it’s not altruism at all.

Interestingly (and coincidentally), Prometheus Books (no friend of creationists) announced a new book this week: Kindness in a Cruel World: The Evolution of Altruism by Nigel Barber. The press release plainly describes the book’s take on what altruism “really” is:

What do mutual grooming, politeness, priestly celibacy, military heroism, car insurance, and overwork have in common? All are probable examples of the recently discovered evolutionary mechanism called “reciprocal altruism.” Put simply, the concept means, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Although rare in animals, reciprocal altruism colors much of human emotion and social behavior.

Of course, this raises the obvious question: if altruism is merely done to get something in return, what makes it fundamentally different than other animal or human behavior? Furthermore, this view effectively alleges that the altruistic efforts of millions worldwide are ultimately selfish acts (though one wonders what earthly benefit Mother Teresa, for example, received in return for her humanitarian efforts in Calcutta).

But it’s clear what’s leading to this contradiction: the presupposition of the author, who-the release states-”[b]egin[s] with Darwin’s theory ….”


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