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AP Content :: Sensible Science

Altruistic Behavior—Cooperation or Punishment?
by Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

The devastation unfolds in many different ways, but the ending often is the same. Homes, office buildings, historic landmarks, and entire towns succumb to colossal forces of nature or acts of terrorism. As tornadoes ravage rooftops, insulation that once was enclosed in century-old farmhouses gets blown through treetops, and as hurricanes unleash their fury on coastal cities, sandbag levies surrender to the same fate as the foolish man’s house discussed in Jesus’ famous parable (Matthew 7:27). But the story does not end there. Before the weather pattern responsible for those harsh winds moves out, before the smoke clears from rubble, and before the debris can be swept from the streets, support and generosity move in. It happens every time communities experience destruction and loss. Friends, neighbors, and even strangers stop whatever they are doing and volunteer to help in the rebuilding process. Organizations such as the Red Cross—which exist solely on charitable donations and volunteers—show up a few hours later to set up temporary shelters, provide meals, and offer clothing to victims. Home-cooked meals are prepared for those who have lost loved ones, and the non-stop growl of busy chainsaws can be heard for miles around as downed trees are cleared away in an effort to comfort and rebuild.

So why do humans engage in this “weird” ritual? Why would we demonstrate such a cooperative spirit and be concerned for total strangers, many of whom we may never see again? This goes against every single fiber of our alleged evolutionary heritage. The fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines altruism as “unselfish concern for the welfare of others” (Pickett, 2000, p. 54). Under normal circumstances, this word is used to describe the scene above—friends, neighbors, and strangers all reaching out to help individuals in need. Nevertheless, the concept of altruism is under a full-scale attack by evolutionists as they attempt to reshape and redefine the way we view human cooperation. In the January 10, 2002 issue of Nature, Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter reported their findings, which they believe explain why humans do good deeds. In the very first sentence of the article, they admitted the conundrum in which evolutionists find themselves.

Human cooperation is an evolutionary puzzle. Unlike other creatures, people frequently cooperate with genetically unrelated strangers, often in large groups, with people they will never meet again, and when reputation gains are small or absent. These patterns of cooperation cannot be explained by the nepotistic motives associated with the evolutionary theory… (415:137).

They then speculated, however, that human cooperation is simply the result of negative emotions toward people who do not help. They noted that “altruistic punishment of defectors is a key motive for the explanation of cooperation” (415:137). In a review that appeared in the same issue, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Ginits designated this punishment that is conditioned by the behavior of others as “Homo reciprocans” (415:127). They insist that many people punish “free riders,” even if they do not benefit personally, and that it is this altruistic punishment which sustains cooperation. Therefore, the researchers believe, human cooperation only flourishes under conditions where people are able to punish those who are seen as not contributing to the public good.

During this study, which was conducted in Switzerland, 240 undergraduate students were given 20 “money units” (MU). Of those 20, the students were informed they could keep all that they did not contribute to the group project, or they could contribute their money to the group project in hopes of earning a small return on their investment. For each money unit invested in the project, every group member earned 0.4 MUs. Thus, the investor’s return after investing one additional MU in the project was 0.4 MUs for each member in the group. If all group members kept their MUs privately, each subject earned only 20 MUs, whereas a group of four could have earned 32 MUs if everyone contributed all they had (0.4 X 20 MUs X 4 members = 32 MUs).

Two different studies were conducted using this approach. In one, the participants were allowed to punish, financially, group members after seeing how much they contributed. The other study did not allow any type of punishment. From this, the authors noted, “altruistic punishment took place frequently” and followed a “clear pattern” (415:137). According to their results, most acts of punishment were imposed on “defectors” (or people who did not contribute much to the group), and the punishments usually were executed by cooperators (that is, above-average contributors to the group—who themselves received a small financial punishment every time they chose to punish a defector). Students then were subjected to additional experimental sessions in which they went through the same procedure, except that this time students already had been the recipients of punishments or they had executed a punishment on someone in prior experiments. In commenting on their findings, the authors noted:

The act of punishment does provide a material benefit for the future interaction partners of the punished subject but not for the punisher. Thus, the act of punishment, although costly for the punisher, provides a benefit to other members of the population by inducing potential non-cooperators to increase their investments. For this reason, the act of punishment is an altruistic act (415:139, emp. added).

Maybe you should think twice before you donate clothes or cook a meal for the bereaved, because according to these individuals “punishment is an altruistic act.” Researchers assure us—using geometric angles and Freudian logic—that your clothes donation actually punishes those who do not donate. Forget about the fact that deep down in your heart you care about others and want to help other human beings. Researchers are not going to allow acts of kindness to be reduced to “love and cooperation” because that would collapse their evolutionary underpinnings, which uphold the belief of “survival of the fittest.” Human support for strangers and altruistic behavior flies in the face of evolution, and thus calls into question their theory regarding the origin of man. Evolutionists may try to give alternative reasons for human cooperation and generosity, but it will not change the determination and dedication we have for one another. While they speculate on punishments and cooperation, the truth is that humans were made in the image and likeness of a loving God (Genesis 1:26-27), whom many earnestly seek to please. A certain lawyer once asked Jesus: “ ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’ And he said unto him, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets’ ” (Matthew 22:36-40). We all would do well to heed this altruistic command delivered to us by the Son of our Almighty Creator.


Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Ginits (2002), “Behavioural Science: Homo reciprocans,” Nature, 415:125-128, January 10.

Fehr, Ernst and Simon Gachter (2002), “Altruistic Punishment in Humans,” Nature, 415:137-140, January 10.

Pickett, Joseph P., ed. (2000), American Heritage Dictionary (New York: Houghton Mifflin), fourth edition.

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