Altruism – exhibiting personally costly behavior that benefits another – is something that we value as one of the higher defining aspects of humanity. But it is not something confined to the human species, and probably is not primarily a conscious set of actions. I once watched a bird feeding fish.
Behind my cabin in the Rockies ran a creek that started in a cirque lake way up above timberline. A loop in the stream created a nice little pond in my back yard, and it was summer home to several brook trout. One morning after full melt I was out there and noticed a female robin at the shore, and she kept dipping her head to the water. Only after she kept at it for a while did I find it unusual. And then I noticed small ripples on the surface around her feet. I slowly snuck around until I could see through the surface glare and noticed that there were several little trout hatchlings – maybe six or ten, each a couple of inches long, and it appeared that she were kissing them! She wasn’t trying to eat them – robins are insectivores, she was feeding them the way she would feed her own chicks!
Now I don’t imagine that this bird saw hungry minnows and decided out of the good of her heart to feed them. I speculate, and that’s all it is, that this bird had lost her clutch of eggs to a snake or a late freeze or whatever. By then she was genetically programmed with an instinct and hormonal changes necessary to feed her offspring. Her gut chemistry would have changed so that she didn’t fully digest her insect meal right away, and the sight of the open mouths of her chicks would cause her to regurgitate a portion to them. Perhaps she, being chickless, was in this over-full state when she happened to be on the shore of my little pond. Maybe a water strider came by and she was half-heartedly going after it when a little trout fingerling came up, mouth agape, and grabbed it. The sight of that little open maw triggered her maternal instinct to puke and other little fish came up, also with jaws wide, to claim the offering, resulting in a sort of feedback loop until she was putting food directly into the mouths of the fishes.
This went on for a few minutes and then the bird looked around as if awakening from a dream and flew away. I’m sure that she wasn’t thinking, “Well I’ve done my good deed for the day”. Her gut probably felt better, and she was ready to go eat some more bugs that she wouldn’t quite know what to do with. As far as I know she didn’t go to a pond and feed more fish, but she might have – birds are pretty smart and have excellent memory.
We often do things like give to charities or go to pains to help neighbors or even strangers, and those things are largely done with forethought and some understanding of wider consequences. When a person in an emergency performs a spontaneous act of risky altruism we call it heroism. Most often that person will wave off the hero label, saying that they just acted on instinct and never thought about the consequences. I don’t think that these are different things. While we’re also pretty smart and have decent memories (save for some gaps in the Sixties), our genetically programmed instincts are no less complex than those of that robin at my pond. Maybe they’re more intellectually moderated most of the time, or maybe not. We are profoundly social critters with a rich tapestry of how we interact. Altruism is just one interactive strategy and may not be a conscious one. If it were not an evolutionarily stable strategy, or at least a misfiring as in the case of the robin, it probably wouldn’t exist.
That's a very interesting story.
Living in Texas once, we had both a dog and a cat. In a short time they got used to each other and were aware that they both lived in our house even though they were "indoor/outdoor" animals. One time our dog was attacked by other dogs outside. Our cat quickly ran into this, and the appearance of it was that the cat was a decoy to distract the other dogs. Whatever that was, it worked, and both our animals were soon safe inside again.
Your story reminded me of something I'd almost forgotten. When I was about 7 or 8 we had an enormous Manx cat that was just barely tame. There was a small but stout bulldog that was the alpha of all the neighborhood dogs, and it attacked our laid-back collie in our yard, inflicting quite a bit of injury. One morning I went outside and found that bulldog with its throat torn out, and the cat hovering around his kill. It's interesting how these critters that we've domesticated are sometimes able to form trans-species packs.