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    Why Do Animals Help Each Other? Scientists Decode Altruism by Studying Their Behaviour

    Pusha the cat, which adopted four orphaned baby squirrels lies at a local park of miniatures in Bakhchisaray, Crimea. (Image for representation/REUTERS)

    Pusha the cat, which adopted four orphaned baby squirrels lies at a local park of miniatures in Bakhchisaray, Crimea. (Image for representation/REUTERS)

    William Donald Hamilton developed an idea in 1964 that became a solution to explain altruism in evolutionary genetics. He coined the term inclusive fitness and proposed that a gene that may impose a fitness cost on one species can still spread, provided that it enhances the fitness of its relatives.

    Altruism is the moral practice to work for the happiness and betterment of others. It is governed by a selfless concern for others, where an animal strives to do good to others even at the cost of risking his own interest.

    Raghavendra Gadagkar from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Bengaluru, writes in Science, The Wire about the different scientists and their understanding of smartness in animals, most significantly, the knowledge of why animals are nice to each other.

    Let us read about the scientists and their theories to understand altruism as explained by science.

    Born in 1892, John Burdon Sanderson Haldane in his book on population genetics talked about kin selection and how in small populations, natural selection would favour the spread of genes that make altruistic behaviour of some kind.

    Haldane’s words which became a central part of the kin selection roughly meant that if more than two of his brothers are drowning then he will risk his life to save them but wouldn’t do it for one or two of them.

    William Donald Hamilton developed an idea in 1964 that became a solution to explain altruism in evolutionary genetics. He coined the term inclusive fitness and proposed that a gene that may impose a fitness cost on one species can still spread, provided that it enhances the fitness of its relatives. He proposed Hamilton's rule which gives the conditions that can provide inclusive fitness advantage to a gene that promotes altruism.

    Robert Trivers gave the theory of reciprocal altruism that indicates that an act of helping is not evolutionary harmful to the animal if it will be reciprocated in the future. Initially, it was difficult to understand for most people if the animals would be smart enough to reciprocate an act in the future but decades later, the idea has picked up.

    Gerald S. Wilkinson, a professor at the University of California gave the concept of direct reciprocity with an experiment about food sharing in Costa Rica’s bats. One of the findings of their experiment was that the bats recognised those who had donated blood to them in the past and helped them in future, however, they refused to help those who did not help them in the past. His student Gerald Carter has also reconfirmed these results with a larger sample size.

    More experiments are being carried out on birds on the crow family currently to study altruism.

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