A Biology of Altruism

Img_4307Lee Dugatkin is a professor at the University of Louisville and the author of "The Altruism Equation," who has been researching the nature of goodness in people and animals alike for 20 years.

As an aside, he says he feels like a kid in the conceptual candy store (my paraphrase), saying "that everywhere he looks, there's an idea he likes." He urges the audience to tell everyone they know about what's happening in Louisville.

(Photo credit: Geoff Oliver Bugbee / www.geoffbugbee.com)

"In all good adventures, there is a mystery." In this case it's the question, "what is the nature of altruism?"

He'll be sharing one main idea from his field, evolutionary biology.

Showing a video of a squirrel alarming his neighbors to the predator nearby, he rhetorically asks why the squirrel exposes himself to danger for the benefit of other squirrels. If evolution is the tale of survival, why has this self-sacrificing behavior emerged?

Altruism is not restricted to mammals, he suggests. Even slime mold, single celled creatures, cluster together to form a slug in times of peril and move as one.

He shows a video of the production of "fruiting bodies" in slime mold in which other slime-mold "stalks" ladder themselves, which, crucially, will not allow themselves to reproduce, so that the rest of the might survive - even though there is no nervous system, no brain, it's an altruistic act.

In Darwin's Origin of Species, the problem of altruism is one of the problems Darwin struggled most with. Why, for example, does the Honey Bee sting kill the bee? How could evolution, Dugatkin asks, develop a trait that, "when expressed, you die?" The answer, he suggests is that the bee is protecting the hive, its "blood relatives."