Do you think altruistic acts are rooted in our genes and biology or is it something that is learned from our societies and cultures? And if we are altruistic by nature, then how do we explain the non-altruistic things we do? Or is that where the society and culture part comes in?

I'm just thinking out loud here, so what do you think?

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To quote myself - "Every man for himself just doesn't work when every man is three feet tall and delicious."
I´ll recomend "Our Inner Ape" of Franz de Waal. About empathy and altruism it´s better than "the Selfish Gene".
I haven't read The Selfish Gene or Our Inner Ape yet (although they're now officially on my reading list), so my opinion is just based on observation. With that in mind, I'd say that we are essentially selfish creatures. I always refer to small children for example. We are born demanding (rightly so to survive) and have no thoughts other than our own immediate needs and wants. As we grow, we are taught manners - to share, to not steal, to say "please," etc. I would say that conforming to these social mores is self-serving. If we smile and say please, we're more likely to get what we want. If we don't steal, we don't end up in jail. If we share, people are nicer to us and more likely to share with us. We benefit from playing nice and being good; it's selfish.

I could argue the same for altruism; it's just a matter of scale. Somehow, in doing such-and-so altruistic act, we believe we are benefiting from it. Maybe it's for the recognition, maybe it's for the do-gooder's high, maybe it's out of guilt, maybe it's for a sense of belonging, maybe it's for our children and future generations (sort of survival of the species or viewing your children as extensions of yourself.)

But then... I've been called cynical before.
We´re social beings first. We need other human beings. And social creatures are empathic creatures, who can respond to others emotions and needs.
Have you ever seen how small kids (who are so demanding) get really upset when somebody else is crying? That´s empathy and we have it since birth. The first empathy act, cry when somebody else does, it´s present in newborns. Altruist acts start with empathy.
So we have a inner nature to be altruist and a culture that will help or not to develop it.
Every social species displays altruistic behavior... therefore the basis is genetic. However, the way a child is raised can significantly hinder their desire to be altruistic. I personally believe that if you allow our natural sense of empathy to grow in a child, they will automatically be altruistic beings.

... that doesn't, of course, mean they will automatically understand why certain things are altruistic.
It is definitely nurture. A child learns to be altruistic when people around them give them attention for performing an altruistic act. As time goes by, they are socially conditioned to be altruistic and think of others first. Sometimes, especially in a very religious environment, they may become selfless, ie not knowing who they are and lose the ability to think.

From the biological point of view, when we find foods, we do it for our survival. A person cannot survive if they find foods and give everything to other people.




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