Altruism in its purest definition is the act of helping someone else, even if it comes at an extraordinarily steep personal cost.  Altruism in people has been favorably described as a gesture that reflects the best, most virtuous side of humans. But humans are not the only creatures who exhibit this self-sacrificing behavior.

Honeybees maintain high levels of altruism among large numbers of individuals.  Bees valiantly protect their hive if the honey is being plundered.  Swarms of bees come to the rescue of their honeycomb and will attack and sting the offender.  A bee cannot withdraw its barbed sting from the skin of the malefactor, so the inevitable result of its attack is that the sting is torn out of its abdomen and the bee dies.  For the little honeybee, the defense of the hive is an act of true self-sacrifice.

While altruism occurs in other species humans are exceptional in that their cooperation and self-sacrifice extend beyond close genealogical kin to include total strangers.  Our only rivals as the world’s greatest cooperators are the remarkable social insects like honeybees that live in colonies and share division of labor and food. But helping out one’s group occurs on a much larger scale in humans than it does with any other species.

It is theorized that humans came upon altruism quite early in their evolutionary history. Our ancestors lived in environments, both natural and socially constructed, in which groups of individuals who were predisposed to cooperate tended to survive and expand, relative to other groups of hominids.  If the rival groups had fragile bonds with weak leaders who did not encourage sharing, cooperation, and altruism, the rival groups were not a competitive match for the group who were strongly bonded together for the common good. The expansion and success of the groups of cooperative homo sapiens allowed the more prosocial groups to proliferate.

Humans, unique among mammals, cooperate in vast numbers to advance projects to benefit the common good and at times go beyond a cooperative level to self-sacrificing behavior.

There are critics who proclaim that there is no such thing as a “pure” altruist. Are there really individuals who are entirely unselfishly concerned for, or devoted to the welfare of others?  The debate as to whether altruism exists focuses on whether a person’s motivations are truly altruistic. But examples of altruism abound.  In all historical eras there have been people who donate their money or time to help the common good, without wanting any recognition for it. Even something as small as holding a door open for a stranger is an example of altruistic behavior. The only condition for an altruistic act is behaving generously and helpfully to others without expecting any benefit. 

The question then, is not do humans behave altruistically, but why they act altruistically?  The altruistic acts extend beyond family to helping complete strangers. This type of generous and civic-minded behavior is widespread across the globe.

There are numerous examples that attest to human’s positive nature; acts of generosity and selflessness. They run the gamut from small acts of kindness to brave acts of sacrifice.  Examples of altruism range from giving money to a homeless person on the street, helping an elderly person cross the road, giving money to charity, volunteering at a soup kitchen, helping someone get something off the shelf at the grocery store to brave, intrepid acts of sacrificing one’s life to save others. 

Though humans cooperate on various levels, human altruism takes cooperation many steps further.  An altruist sees the well-being of others as equal, if not more important than the well-being of themselves. Like the honeybees, in extreme situations, the human’s selfless act might very well include putting the welfare of others before their own life.