Understanding altruism

Understanding altruism


Understanding altruism not only deepens our comprehension of biological processes but also sheds light on fundamental aspects of social behavior and evolution.

  • Altruism, the selfless concern for the well-being of others, is a fascinating phenomenon observed across various species in nature, including humans.
  • Its presence in diverse forms, from the sacrificial behaviors of worker bees to the sentinel duties of meerkats, raises intriguing questions about its origins and mechanisms.

GS-03 (Science and technology)


  • The topic delves into the biological and genetic underpinnings of altruism, exploring how and why organisms engage in self-sacrificial behaviors that benefit others.
  • The discussion spans across different species, examining the evolutionary advantages of altruism and the genetic mechanisms that facilitate it.
  • The central focus is on the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum, a simpler organism that has provided significant insights into the genetic basis of altruistic behavior.

What is Altruism?

Altruism in biological terms refers to behaviors that reduce an individual’s fitness but increase the fitness of others. Examples of altruism abound in nature:

  • Worker Honey Bees: Worker bees devote their lives to foraging and caring for the queen and her offspring, never reproducing themselves.
  • Widow Spiders: Male widow spiders allow themselves to be eaten by fertilized females, nourishing the female and her future offspring.
  • Meerkats: Meerkats take turns being sentinels, watching for predators while the rest of the group forages for food. Upon sighting danger, they alert the others, putting themselves at risk.

In humans, the concept of altruism is often romanticized and moralized, encapsulated in sayings like, “Greater love has no man than he who lays down his life for his friends.”

Key Takeaways

1. The Genetic Switch Hypothesis

  • Research into altruism has made significant strides through studies of Dictyostelium discoideum, a social amoeba.
  • These studies suggest that altruistic behavior can be attributed to specific genes, often referred to as ‘green-beard’ genes. These genes allow individuals to recognize and preferentially cooperate with others carrying the same gene.
  • The green-beard hypothesis proposes that such genes encode a recognizable tag, enabling self-recognition and altruistic behavior.

2. Altruistic Amoebae

  • Dictyostelium discoideum exemplifies altruism in a simple organism.
  • In nutrient-rich environments, these amoebae live independently, feeding on bacteria.
  • When food becomes scarce, they aggregate to form multicellular structures called fruiting bodies. About 20% of the amoebae in an aggregate sacrifice themselves to form a stalk that supports a spore-containing structure, facilitating the dispersal of the remaining 80%.
  • This behavior ensures the survival of the species, demonstrating how altruism can evolve in even the simplest of life forms.

3. The Role of Green-Beard Genes

  • In 2017, researchers identified two genes in Dictyostelium discoideum — tgrB1 and tgrC1 — that function as green-beard genes.
  • These genes produce proteins that allow cells to recognize kin and promote cooperation. When the proteins from two cells bind strongly, the genes are activated, leading to altruistic behavior.
  • This genetic mechanism ensures that altruistic individuals are not exploited by non-altruistic ‘cheaters.’

4. Polymorphism and Self-Recognition

  • The tgrB1 and tgrC1 genes exhibit high polymorphism, meaning they have many variants within a population.
  • This diversity allows amoebae to finely discriminate between kin and non-kin, ensuring cooperation is extended only to those closely related.
  • When researchers examined different strains of Dictyostelium, they found numerous variants of these genes, correlating with the efficiency of cell segregation and cooperation.