Monday, July 6, 2015


205. Parochial altruism

Empirically, altruism has clearly been shown to exist, in people and animals, especially certain primates. In particular the Bonobo ape, as Frans de Waal has shown.[i] It appears to be present naturally, instinctively.

De Waal makes the point that if altruism were against human nature, had nothing to build on there, the task of morality to impose it would be impossible.

In item 46 of this blog I considered the puzzle of how altruism could have survived evolution as an instinct, i.e. as ‘something in our genes’, next to an instinct for self-interest and survival. I offered an argument for the hypothesis that it could have survived only when accompanied with some protection of an altruistic group against invasion of opportunistic outsiders that derive advantage from preying on altruists and competing them away in evolutionary selection.

In other words, by hypothesis altruism is accompanied by an instinctive discrimination of outsiders. Perhaps that explains current xenophobia, in Europe, against non-western immigrants. I also suggested that by cultural means altruism concerning members of the group one identifies with may be extended, moulded, to include outsiders. Ethics may then build on a genetic potential for empathy.

I did not offer empirical evidence, and here I proceed to do so.

In a mountain of literature, in psychology and sociology, the proposition is known as parochial altruism, and it has been extensively confirmed empirically, but with an important qualification.[ii] There is more weight on in-group love and preferential treatment than on out-group hatred. This may make raise some hope against xenophobia.

Not surprisingly, in-group preferential treatment is stronger to the extent that collaboration is more important, reputation effects are stronger, and inter-group competition is stronger. More surprisingly, perhaps, it has also been found to be stronger for more other-oriented or ‘pro-social’ individuals. One might have expected that they would be more benevolent towards outsiders, but that appears not to be the case. In other words, a stronger other-orientation does not reduce but intensifies out-group discrimination.

Carsten de Dreu et al.[iii] investigated the effect of the ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone Oxytocin. Here also one might have expected it to reduce out-group discrimination, but the opposite appears to be the case: it intensifies in-group favouritism, between-group rivalry and discrimination.

In his studies of apes, de Waal also found empathy within the group accompanied by distrust of any outsiders.

However, while Chimpanzees are indeed mistrustful and aggressive to outsiders, Bonobos are not. Instead of war they make abundant sexual love with outsiders, as they do within the group, thus avoiding tensions and conflict between in-group and out-group.

De Waal also argues that humans have traits in common with both Chimpanzees and Bonobos, related to our having a common ancestor to them. Perhaps in our stance towards immigrants we should cultivate the Bonobo in us. Perhaps culture could do that.


[i] Frans de Waal, The Bonobo and the atheist: In search of humanism among the primates, 2013.
[ii] See e.g. Carsten K.W. de Dreu, Daniel Balliet & Nir Halevy, Parochial cooperation in humans: Forms and functions of self-sacrifice in intergroup conflict, Advances in Motivation Science, 1(2014), p. 1-47.
[iii] Carsten K.W. de Dreu, Lindred L. Greer, Gerben A. van Kleef, Shaul Shalvi & Michael J.J. Handgraaf, Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism, 2011, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 108, p. 1262-1266.