Sitting in on a recent World Science Festival panel, "What it Means to be Human: The Enigma of Altruism," Cocktail Party Physicict Lee Kottner blogged about the development of altruism, which one festival panelist helpfully distinguished from mere cooperation by putting the effort into a human readable format.
Altruism is only a facet of the complex cooperative societies that humans develop, but it seems unique to us. Chimpanzees and other primates cooperate, but the difference between our behavior and that of ants or bees or marmosets or even other primates is that "awwwww" factor: our ability to empathize. Xavier LePichon, a geophysicist best known for his model of plate tectonics, has also done extensive research into compassionate behavior among humans. He's lived for many years with the mentally handicapped and gave a striking example of the type of behavior involved in human altruism that occurred among Neanderthals
Empathy practiced, LePichon adds, will eventually give way to love.
University of Louisville biologist Lee Dugatkin talked about altruism at the last IdeaFestival, suggesting yet another yardstick for measuring this uniquely human trait: "Who would you give stuff too?" Hinting at another great mystery, he wryly concluded that all altruistic theories fail in one respect. They can't model the satisfaction of the altruistic act itself.
And since I've already twittered this (you are following the IdeaFestival on Twitter, right?), I'm not giving too much away. Bert Hölldobler, who co-authored Superorganism along with famed entomologist E.O. Wilson, will participate in this year's IdeaFestival.
Please check out Kottner's post if you get the chance.