Valdemar Malin. Are Animals Selfless?

Part I — Debate

We love our pets. When we are kids, we believe they behave like us. When we are adults, we pretend they do, but we talk to them and we share our thoughts with them as if they can understand.

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Why do we tend to humanize behaviors of pets and wild animals? Is it because Nature gave us imagination?

But not a single animal behavior raises so much discussions, arguments and controversy as Selflessness. Are animals (or other non-human living beings) capable of giving away to strangers what belongs to them (territory, lairs, females or food) voluntarily out of kindness, compassion or pity like humans can do it?

Who cares? This question seems to be so trivial and purely academic. But it’s not. It may have a profound effect on your life as we’ll see later.

One day, I flew from Chicago to San Diego on a business trip. Two middle-aged passengers were sitting next to me. They looked like college professors and were involved in an animated, intelligent conversation discussing genetics and evolutionary biology, this kind of dull academic stuff. I was working on my presentation and did not pay much attention until the younger fellow said,

“John, why don’t you accept that animals in nature can behave selflessly from birth? The theory of Biological Altruism is well documented in research literature. Animals, birds and even fish are intelligent enough to help, groom, warn and defend each other. To share with others is in their genes!”

The word “animals” drew my attention instantly, and I pricked my ears. I love animals and stories about them.

“I do object, Milton,” John replied cleaning his golden-rimmed glasses. “This theory of so-called Biological Altruism has always been open to fierce debates. It does not have sufficient evidence and explanatory power. In fact, it has nothing to do with altruism, per se!”

“Is the evidence brought by Bill Hamilton in his Kin-Selection theory is not convincing? Many animals do behave selflessly. They share food with their offspring and even relatives even if it reduces their chances to reproduce in favor of those whom they help.”

“Here is the problem, Milton. Helping relatives that share the same genetic codes is a selfish strategy. All of them are genetically similar and driven to propagate their genes at the expense of the genes of their competitors. This is not selflessness! The animals behave out of their genetic self-interest!”

“Just a minute, John! Not only relatives help each other. Robert Trivers convincingly proved it in his theory of Reciprocal Altruism. He suggests that the animals receiving selfless favors return the favor sooner or later.

For example, a cleaner-fish gets inside the mouth of a larger fish and cleans it up by eating harmful parasites. Both fish make some sacrifice—the bigger fish doesn’t gulp down the intruder depriving itself a snack, while the smaller one helps a stranger to get rid of parasites, voluntarily. Also, vampire bats share food voluntarily with other bats.”

“For God’s sake, Milton! You are talking about fish, not Mother Theresa, the Saint! The large fish gets cleaned, and the smaller one gets fed. Both fish use each other in their self-interests. Where is selflessness here? The whole deal is like you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. By the way, your vampire bats behave selflessly only toward their kin.”

“Then explain me please, John, why does a monkey warns others about an approaching predator? It exposes and puts itself in danger to protect the group. Isn’t this a real selfless behavior?”

“Of course not! Typically, a predator has to sneak close to a prey to be successful. The monkey warns the predator that it was detected forcing it to abort its attempt. Thus, the monkey makes itself safer, in the first place.

Recently, I was watching an episode from the BBC Big Cat Diary on the Animal Planet TV channel. A leopard was sneaking on a group of Thomson’s gazelles. But the nearest gazelle, the potential prey, detected the predator and whistled. Do you think the leopard jumped on the whistle-blower right away? No, it relaxed, came out of its hiding, muttered something like “See you next time, pal” and walked away peacefully with his tail up.

You are an idealist, Milton! The biological altruism is a wishful thinking! To give away voluntarily its own territory, lair, females or food, even its own life, to strangers out of kindness, compassion, pity or duty requires complex intellectual qualities, both logical and emotional. Animals do not have them!

Whatever you claim to be selflessness or altruism in animals is, in fact, a disguised self-interest or inborn egoism! Or, at least, a mutually beneficial cooperation. Because Nature said so!”

John paused and asked sarcastically, “Why are you, guys so bent on proving that animals are selfless, ignoring facts?”

“Would you like some beverage, Sir?” A flight attendant approached the combatants and interrupted this fascinating, uncompromised duel. I wished the pair would continue, but they switched to other topics arguing with much less passion.

I was so mesmerized by the debate that I couldn’t work anymore. Although the subject was new to me, I had a feeling that the debate was about something bigger than animals and selflessness. John’s last sarcastic question confirmed my suspicions.

Who was right? Really, why can’t animals behave selflessly? They have feelings and even intelligence.

In this respect, I recall an incredible story that happened to me in a Chicago suburb many years ago. One summer evening, I and my wife came out for a walk. We were walking on a street leading to Lake Michigan. Suddenly, we were startled by screeching sounds behind us—a car almost hit a big red dog. There was no owner around.

Luckily, the dog was not hurt, but looked shaken and lost. As we kept walking, the dog seemed to follow us. When we approached him, he sat and raised his head up as if he was praying for his salvation. Only then, we noticed a brass tag on his chest almost buried in his fluffy red hair. I pulled the tag—there was a phone number engraved on it. Jumping and leaking our hands, the dog was elated from joy because, obviously, we understood his SOS-message. We called his owner, and she picked him up.

The lost dog’s intelligence astonished me at that time—he seemingly knew the meaning of his tag. He virtually asked humans to read it and help him to find his home! If selflessness requires intelligence, this is a good case in favor of biological altruism!

Still, there were some doubts. Was that intelligence? Or I humanized the dog’s behavior? The dog could be walking along sniffing his way home when I stopped him. The rest could be my wishful thinking or fantasy.

If wild animals have emotions and intelligence, why don’t they show much selflessness? Why do they fight so fiercely, even to the death, for their territory, nests, females or food instead of sharing? It’s evident from many documentaries about nature.

Here is a scene from a popular TV series The Planet Earth. A male polar bear, after having gorged to the point of distension, shares the leftovers with a female bear starving for weeks.

This act was praised by the authors as selfless and altruistic. Then why did the male repeatedly threaten and chase the female off when he was still hungry?

Another example is my friend Yashka, the wild seagull. I was taming him for 5 years, but could not find a shred of selflessness in his behavior also (read about it in https://kontinentusa.com/yashka-2/).

You may argue that pets are more intelligent than wild animals and are more likely to behave selflessly. But my long experience as a passionate pet lover refutes this argument, either.

You see, as a student, I lived with my parents. One day, our beloved cat, which I picked up from the streets, brought a litter of four adorable kittens. Two of them were adapted by neighbors, but two others stayed with us for five more months.

The kittens slept in a basket and ate from the same saucer. They were well fed, pampered and slept a lot. The lazy bums shared food and never quarreled over it. They were really selfless cats by their nature.

That’s what I thought. But one cold and wet evening, on my way home, I noticed a small black kitten shivering on the wet pavement. Rare walkers were in a hurry and paid no attention to the poor soul. I stopped, and the kitten came up to me (only lost pets do that). He was dirty, wet and thin. Extinct eyes and saggy little ears cried out about hopelessness and despair.

“I cannot take you home, little Blackie. I have already three cats. And I promised my mom not to bring street cats home anymore.” I patted him on the head and walked away thinking about selflessness in this world. When I stopped at an intersection, I’ve heard meowing. Here he was sitting next to me—a small piteous ball of fading life. The kitten wanted to live. He did not accept my excuses and followed me to the very door of my apartment.

He broke my heart, mom! I had to take him in. There, in a warm kitchen, he was introduced to my two little lazy bums and their mother, all three watching him with disgust and suspicion.

The next scene was played out by a scenario written by Mother Nature. When I filled the saucer with food, the hungry Blackie jumped on it like a tiger. He started clearing the saucer with an amazing speed, while the astonished cats backed off hissing in desperation.

To my surprise, the civilized pets didn’t want to share with a poor, hungry stranger, while the domesticated stranger didn’t give a damn that they were hungry too. No selflessness or altruism on both sides!

But the real surprise came the next morning when I filled the saucer with food again. Yesterday, as always, my little lazy bums were selfless and shared food. Now, they jumped to the saucer without invitation. They were growling and blocking each other trying to get as much food for themselves as they can. They realized that food can be taken away any moment leaving them hungry.

The rosy world of the two kittens and their behavior had changed forever since that day. I thought they were born kind, selfless and generous. Not at all! The satiated kittens learned that food is in abundance in their artificial, man-made world, so they shared it generously. But in the real world created by Nature, it took only one short lesson on competition and their learned “selfless” behavior was shut down, while the hidden so far inborn egoism kicked in.

So, judging by my own experience, animals, in fact, are not selfless, even if their behavior looks as such. They pursue their own interests and benefits even if it’s not that evident. They are just playing the role of altruists on the stage of our imagination and fantasy.

You may argue that dogs save their owners risking their own lives. True. But for a dog, an owner is the alfa-leader of the pack. A pack may perish without a leader. So, saving its leader, a dog saves itself, as well.

You may remind me about bees also. Those little toilers are the most selfless beings in the living world. They work tirelessly for the hive, not for themselves.

Agree. But not all bees behave selflessly—only the Western “social” honeybees (Apis mellifera). There are many species of bees in the wild that live solitary lives. Such “antisocial” bees live for themselves pursuing their own deplorable interests and benefits.

Even the honeybees—the ultimate altruists—pursue their own interests if it’s beneficial. When their colony loses the queen, their comfortable life style is disrupted. Then the bees, which are sterile daughters of the queen, miraculously turn into reproductive bees—they develop their ovaries and lay eggs to produce male offspring.

This metamorphosis creates competition and conflicts because the bees (former altruists) start working selfishly toward their individual reproductive success. In the words of Nickolas L. Naegar (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne), “individual bees split investment between selfish and altruistic behavior.”

What a surprise! When the individual bees live in a safe and comfortable environment, they behave as altruists. But when their interests are threatened, altruism steps back, and hidden egoism kicks in.

Does it look familiar? Satiated people may afford to talk and behave pompously as altruists. But they drop their altruistic masks right away in the extreme situations—famines, shipwrecks or wars.

This is the defining and universal truth about altruism in pets and wild animals. And in humans too!

…So is there anyone who can claim without reasonable doubts that animals are genuine selfless altruists?

Yes, there are many! And they are not only claiming, but are determined to force everyone to accept their claims as truth. This may have a profound effect on your life. Who and why they do it, we’ll discuss in Part II of this article.

If you are confused by the disinformation about altruism and want to learn what genuine altruism really means, read my article “Secrets of Comte’s Doctrine”.