Exercising altruism

I caught the tail end of a discussion program on NPR last week where the interviewee was Oren Harman, author of “The price of altruism: George Price and the search for the origins of kindness

Most of the talk centered around the biological (and genetic) reasons that human beings help one another out. Harman’s book concerns itself with George R. Price, a scientist who contributed greatly to the fields of evolutionary biology, natural selection and game theory.

Price was infamous for helping the poor and destitute in London. He eventually gave away all his own worldly belongings, becoming a vagrant himself, before ultimately committing suicide.

The whole story was odd, touching and sad all at the same time. In his quest to determine the biological and genetic roots of altruistic behavior – and his attempt to square this with his own religion – he took it upon himself to become radically altruistic.

Upon hearing the historical accounts and first-person interviews that Harman conducted concerning Price’s life, I immediately flashed to the Friends episode “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS”. Forgive me. I’m a product of my entertainment environment.

In that episode, Joey is working for a telethon to further his acting career and he and Phoebe argue about whether or not human beings can engage in an entirely selfless act. Joey says it’s impossible; Phoebe contends she can do it. Hilarity ensues. Theoretically.

Here’s a clip to refresh your memory.

If Nineties TV isn’t your bag, you should check out the primer from How Stuff Works as well. Much more of a Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) and Durkheim (Social Subjectivism) view, than Price’s, but it’s well worth the read.

As I was mulling all this talk about selfless acts, self-imposed poverty and selfish genes over in my own head, I read a great interview of the Dalai Lama in the most recent Rolling Stone.

This quote was extremely pertinent:

The important thing is that my daily life should be something useful to others. As soon as I wake up in the morning, I shape my mind. The rest of the day, my body, speech, mind are dedicated to others. That is compulsory as a practitioner, and also that way I gain some kind of inner strength. If I am concerned about my own sort of legacy, a genuine Buddhist practi­tioner should not think that. If you’re concerned much about your legacy, then your work will not become sincere. You are mainly thinking of your own good name. Selfish. Not good. Spoiled.

I’m not Buddhist, but I do listen to enough of Dan Benjamin’s podcasts that I feel as though I have a passing affinity for its central tenets and practitioners.

Ultimately, whether is biological/genetic/chemical, religious, social or purely rational self-interest, the manifestations of altruism are incredibly interesting, beneficial (to all parties) and fulfilling.

Make of all that what you will.

I’d love to hear what other people think about altruism, so please leave a comment.

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