Hurricane Sandy: The Puzzle of Altruism


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Hurricane Sandy encouraged altruism. Image by david_shankbone

Hurricane Sandy encouraged altruism. Image by david_shankbone

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, stories are emerging of people donating food and electricity to others, and generally coming together as communities to help one another.

For example, the Facebook page of the Hope Hose Humane Co. # 1 firestation, based in Bordentown, New Jersey, reports multiple local donations to feed neighbors on short notice.

Christ Church in Bordentown opened its parish hall to those needing to charge phones, use the internet, or just get warm.

Other organizations and even families across the East Coast are doing the same.

Is this human behavior at its best, or at its most puzzling?  What convinces someone to reach out to help a stranger who does not share genetics with the giver?  Socio-biologists have struggled to find an evolutionary mechanism behind altruism.

Sociobiology and Genetics

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines sociobiology as “the application of evolutionary theory to human behavior…The assumption is that many behaviors function to enhance reproductive success in the set of environments in which they evolved.”  Terms such as “selfish gene” comes from this perspective.  Altruism proves to be a difficult concept to explain using an evolutionary paradigm.  Why help someone else if it is not something that will enhance the success of your own genetic offspring?

Cheaters Never Prosper?

Also from the Sanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “[s]ociobiologists claim that we feel guilt when we are expected to reciprocate but cheat instead. Our sense of fairness is associated with extreme sensitivity to whether the social exchange balances benefits and costs to oneself and others in the right amounts.”

Culturally, a deal of sorts has been made where “normal” people reciprocate the altruism shown to them over time, whereas others are “cheaters” who attempt to give back as little as possible.  The individuals who donated food in Bordentown do not fit the model of a cheater, in fact, they don’t appear to have much immediate chance at benefiting from reciprocity.  Another possible sociobiological explanation is that their behavior represents costly signaling.

Costly Signaling

Robert Kurzban, Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that altruism provides a way for people to signal that they are in the position to be altruistic, or that they have resources to spare.  As Kurzban put it, “the ability to deliver large benefits (at large costs) honestly signals the ability to do so.”  In theory, this display functions like a male peacock’s tail, it will attract partners.

“Neighbors Helping Neighbors”

We may make a number of other sociological explanations for altruistic behavior, such as the fact that it helps keep society stable, fulfills religious functions, and just makes people feel good. Whatever the individual motivations, the helpful behavior of the people of New Jersey is, as in the words of Assistant Chief Rob Brown, “Neighbors helping neighbors.”


Facebook. Hope Hose Humane Co. # 1. (2012). Accessed November 1, 2012.

Kurzban, R. Evolutionary Explanations for Altruism and Morality: Some Key Distinctions. (2012). The Evolutionary Psychology Blog. Accessed November 1, 2012.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Sociobiology. (2005). Accessed November 1, 2012.

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