Altruism: Courageous survival or just bats in the belfrey?

This past weekend I went to the bluffs to camp. Nature in many ways informs my sense of wonder in the divine, and always assures me of the impermanence of all things. The greatest lesson of impermanence looked a lot like a disturbing encounter with my own fragility. I am awakened to my intolerance for crusty pots and pans laced with dying bugs, my reluctance for adapting to the reality that I can’t control the temperature at the tip of my finger and my discomfort for sleeping on imperfect terrain. Independent control freak doesn’t even begin to describe my disposition.

On the car ride down I was soaking up one of my favorite podcasts, RadioLab. “The Good Show” explores Darwin’s theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest as it interacts with the capability of niceness and altruism in nature. The popular scientific understanding suggests that niceness is a disguised selfishness, a motivation to aid our genes … just in another body. So maybe we aren’t really all that altruistic ?


Altrisum picYet, this show listed endless examples of humans going above and beyond what would look like a selfish act. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich feature the story of a man who jumped on a subway track to save a stranger in immediate danger of being hit by a train, meanwhile, his children stood watching him from the platform! The man described this experience as sort of a spiritual calling, being in the right place at the right time and that it was an intended call to action from God. I think about the CSJ community and the ways Sisters, Partners in Mission and Consociates have gone above and beyond to meet the dear neighbor. Darwin must’ve been distressed by this… how then does this attest to the notion of survival of the fittest in a dog-eat-dog world? Clearly, some caring is going on, and there is a lot of mutual movement toward it.

That driving force can be looked at from a variety of perspectives. What I liked most was another example from a RadioLab Short from the behavior of vampire bats. Vampire bats exhibit a similar sort of niceness toward one another. For being quite gruesome in their mammalian blood thirst, they actually caress and feed each other! They will even feed a starving stranger, and not exclusively their relatives. This was looked at as an active choice in friendship networks, initially. Yet, Jerry Wilkinson (chair of Biology at the University of Maryland College Park) on the show suggests that it can also be seen as the only option for them as a species. Nearly 40,000 years ago they were happily fed, but as resources declined they were inclined to really help one another to survive.

Perhaps my disguised selfishness assumes I may feel good from the exchange, or maybe I subconsciously want to expand my social network of Facebook friends. But after meditating on the theme of this podcast during a retreat in nature, I like to believe the active and visceral choice (self-motivated or divinely inspired) to move always toward profound love of God and neighbor without distinction is an evolutionary act simply because … well, isn’t that the most ideal condition for existence? Even the most unlikely subject of vampire bats can teach us about the rewards of altruism in nature. After all, I eventually acclimated to the crunchy surprises in my food, and this warm (non-regurgitated) meal was gifted to me from another beloved human animal. I couldn’t have adapted without their fitness! When I thought I frankly couldn’t survive on my own in the woods, the circumstances of altruism allowed me to see otherwise.

Where do you experience niceness? Where does it come from? Why are we so inclined and called to help one another when we are distressed?


This post was written by Megan Bender, Justice Associate