Cross-Species Altruism? Something to think about…

May 19, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

I had a very strange experience earlier this week that has really stuck with me. I don’t want to over-interpret it, but it really got me thinking. Here’s what happened:

Every morning at about the same time, I walk my dog along a bicycle-walking path near my house. The path, which runs for miles through our town, was once a railroad line track the city repossessed and made into a recreation facility. Wooded on both sides of the trail, it is normal to see lots of squirrels, and while many people feed them and they are quite tame, they always stay way clear of anyone walking a dog. But on this morning, as I was walking from north toward the south, a couple of squirrels came right at my dog from behind us, chattering away. We turned around and my dog immediately went for them, but was on a 20ft leash and the squirrels kept outside of her grasp. I just stopped and let her pull on the leash, the squirrels kept chattering away. I remember thinking that was pretty unusual behavior, but I have seen squirrels in our yard tease the dog when they know she is tied up or behind the sliding glass door­–in other words, that they have a pretty good sense of where she can get to and will taunt her outside of that line.

Back to the story… this scene of chattering and tugging went for some 30 or 45 seconds, and finally I started to pull the dog away, turning south again, to get on with our walk. And when I did, down the trail about 40 yards ahead–just about where we would have been had we not been interrupted by the squirrels–I saw a mother duck crossing the path, trailed by about a dozen little tiny ducklings. Now I am a rather skeptical sort of guy, but for the life of me, it looked unmistakably at that moment like the squirrels had run purposeful interference in order to keep the dog away from the ducklings. It was simply astonishing!

Now, the skeptic in me says that this had to be just a string of coincidences. How could it be otherwise? But all week I have been considering the implications if this was just what it seemed, that is, a case of cross-species altruism–one species (squirrels) putting themselves at potentially mortal risk, in order to increase the survival probability of a completely different species (ducks). Now of course there are many examples of dogs and other companion animals defending their masters even at the cost of their own lives. I don’t know much about the media diet of kids today, but guys my age were literally raised on “Old Yeller” and “Lassie” tales like this!  But this was a case of “wild” animals, not defending “their own” but the young of another species. Talking about this experience this week, one person reminded me of a YouTube video in which a deer protected a kitten, even charging at a dog in the process. But I was never quite clear if that video was staged, and in any case, these were tamed pet animals. Another person pointed toward fairly well-documented cases in which dolphins have surrounded human swimmers to protect them from shark attacks. I wonder how many other experiences of cross-species altruism there are out there.

So what’s the difference? Why has this experience sparked such interest in me? Because if it be true that cross-species altruism is more than a mere fluke occurrence, that is, if it be true that unrelated species “in the wild” are motivated to put themselves at risk in service of mutual survival, then this brings into question the fundamental assumptions about altruism stemming from sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, assumptions fast becoming axial truth in educated circles and spilling into many other disciplines, including moral philosophy itself. According to this view, the “grand synthesis” of genetics and natural selection dictates that over time all living species are driven to exhibit only those characteristics and behaviors that promote “getting their DNA into the next generation.” Ultimately, characteristics and behaviors are interpreted as genetic “survival strategies.” Charles Darwin noted that altruistic behavior was the thorn in the side of his theory of natural selection, but Darwin was not acquainted with genetics. But in light of genetics, we see that altruism is just another manifestation of the “selfish gene,” following a genetic survival strategy scripted by millions of years of evolution. Altruism is really just self-interest in disguise. Even in the most selfless and morally admirable acts, if we properly pull the curtain back, we see that same selfish gene behind it directing the behavior, maximizing its odds of being in that pool of DNA that will be replicated into the next generation.

This is quite convincing in explaining altruistic behavior among close relatives, for example, parents giving up their lives to ensure the survival of their own children. It becomes a bit more strained when looking at altruism favoring those who are not close relatives, but even there, a bit of fancy math adequately preserves the point, since genetically speaking all individual members within a species are carriers of similar DNA. But–and here is the kicker–if any noticeable aspect of what is going on the drama of the evolution of life on this planet is cross-species altruism, then minimally we must conclude that the processes are much more complicated than our synthetic theories have outlined thus far. In that case, perhaps the much-ballyhooed deflation of altruism in our behavioristic theorizing is itself an aspect of our denial.



  1. Dan,

    So what would be causing the squirrels’ altruism? God? Some benevolent cosmic life force? Applying Ockham’s razor to the question, wouldn’t coincidence and selfish genes be a simpler, more credible explanation? Applying non-Darwinian explanations to events often sound to me like more existential denial, not less.

    • I know what you mean, Steve. But on he other hand, as Ernest Becker said, we like to pretend we know what things are “all about” on this planet (and most of our assumptions about it place our species at the top of the food/meaning pyramid) yet we really may have no idea at all what the life force is really up to. It is an interesting assumption that altruism has to be explained. Maybe altruism is an even more basic axiom of the life force than selfishness. Maybe it is selfishness that has to be explained. Many myths of an original peaceful kingdom end with such an explanation the advent of violence and selfishness. These myths originated in societies much closer to “nature” than ours, they could see the evidence of “nature red in tooth and claw” much more clearly and immediately than we can. Yet they felt that violence and selfishness had to be explained – their default position was that it is “unnatural.” Maybe it is less our observations of nature that lead us in the opposite direction and more that it is our economic system that hones our perceptions to primarily “see” that which justifies the selfishness of our system as “natural.” That is at least something to think about. I am not drawing any dogmatic conclusions about anything. I am only telling about an experience I had, something I saw with my own eyes, and about some of the thoughts it sparked in me. No more than that. But I will say that I found the experience startling and challenging. As such, I think it would be a mistake to just rationalize it, minimize and forget about it – but I am not constructing a worldview based on it either.

  2. Altruism bothered Darwin…the only explanation one can apply, at this time, is it must really be selfishness. Sounds logical but doesn’t mean it is correct. Many an old accepted answer has turned out to be incorrect.

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