In April of 2020, the Best Friends Animal Society managed to rescue a pair of cat moms named Callie and Abigail. Unfortunately, it turned out that Abigail had an upper respiratory infection, meaning that she couldn’t nurse her kitten named Arnie. Due to this, the Best Friends Animal Society put Arnie with Callie to see if she was willing to become a cat foster mom. Fortunately, she was, which played a critical part in keeping him both alive and well.
Does Altruism Exist Among Animals?
Due to this, some people might be curious about whether altruism exists among cats. After all, there is a popular stereotype that cats are very selfish creatures, which is sometimes used to contrast them with dogs. However, while there are some cats that fit this particular description, there are plenty of other cats that behave otherwise. For example, it is common for cats to bring “gifts” of dead animals to cat owners, who may or may not appreciate such gestures. Likewise, interested individuals can find a lot of stories about cats seeming to offer their cat owners a measure of comfort in a time of need. On the whole, it seems reasonable to state that cats are capable of altruism, though a fair number of cats seem to perform poorer in regard than their counterparts.
It is unclear why that is the case. However, it is possible that there is a connection to the way that cats were domesticated. For those who are unfamiliar, cats are very curious in that they are a case of a species that seems to have domesticated itself rather than be domesticated by humans. In short, humans started out as hunter-gatherers, but over time, those in the most fertile regions turned themselves into farmers, which proved to be such a successful model that there are very few hunter-gatherers remaining in the present time. However, farming came with new challenges, with an excellent example being the need to protect stored food from rodents as well as other kinds of vermin.
The earliest cats paired up with humans because of mutual advantage. By being close to human settlement, cats gained convenient access to a plentiful source of food in the form of rodents and other kinds of vermin. In exchange, humans gained capable protectors for their stored food with no interest in it because cats are obligate carnivores. Over time, cats became more and more accustomed to human presence, not least because those that were friendly towards humans prospered whereas those that were not did not. However, cats retained a measure of independence that most of the other domesticated species do not, which continues to show in their exhibited behaviors in the present time.
Regardless, other animals show altruism as well. For example, vampire bats are known to regurgitate blood for their neighbors to feed upon, which is important because they can die if they go without feeding for three days. Likewise, there are various species of monkeys that will sound the alarm when they see a predator, which increases other monkeys’ chances of survival at the cost of drawing attention to themselves. On top of this, there are a lot of species that are willing to show altruism to other species. One excellent example would be humpback whales intervening to save members of other species from killer whale attacks. Other excellent examples range from apes helping out human children who have fallen into their enclosures to dolphins helping out humans and even other species that have fallen into the sea. Of course, interested individuals need to be careful of interpreting the actions of animals based on a human perspective, which may or may not be an accurate to what the animal is actually thinking. However, it is also important not to overdo it in the opposite direction because humans do share a lot of similarities with other animals.
How Did Altruism Come Into Existence Among Animals?
In any case, no one really knows the exact answer for how altruism came into existence. However, there has been plenty of investigation into the matter, meaning that our understanding of the matter is continuing to develop in the present time. For starters, it is very common to see speculation about altruism being a matter of kin selection. Basically, genetic success isn’t defined by an individual getting the chance to breed. Instead, it is more accurate to say that genetic success is defined by an individual’s genes managing to make their way to future generations, which may or may not happen through their own offspring. Altruism is very beneficial in this regard in two ways. One, when animals are willing to help each other out, they bolster each other’s chances of survival via simple reciprocation. It is possible for individuals to abuse this kind of system by taking and taking without ever giving, but that kind of problem can be eliminated by evolving ways to detect it as well as ways to reject those that practice it. Two, altruism sometimes sees animals lowering their own chances of survival in exchange for raising their relatives’ chances of survival. Theoretically, even if they get killed because of that act of altruism, their genes can still be passed on to future generations through their relatives’ offspring, thus ensuring that altruism will continue on in the species as a whole.
Having said that, it is important to mention that there has been a challenge to kin selection in recent times because it doesn’t explain the whole situation very well. After all, animals are capable of showing altruism even when there is no chance of reciprocation. Furthermore, animals are capable of showing altruism even when none of their relatives are around to benefit. One potential explanation is that altruism came into existence because of how it affects a group’s chances of survival. Yes, some individuals can be much better than other individuals. However, even if they are good enough to outperform one or two individuals, the chances of them being capable of outperforming an entire group falls drastically with each addition. In other words, a group with altruism is going to outperform a group without altruism because they are much better at working together than their counterparts, meaning that they are going to dominate by sheer numbers if nothing else.
Photo courtesy of Courtney Jacoby