Saturday, December 09, 2006

Dharma Quote: Altruism

Here is the Dharma Quote of the Week from Snow Lion Publications:
Dharma Quote of the Week We ordinary individuals share the characteristic of having our attempts to gain happiness thwarted by our own destructive self-centeredness. It is unsuitable to keep holding onto the self-centered attitude while ignoring others. If two friends find themselves floundering in a muddy swamp they should not ridicule each other, but combine their energies to get out. Both ourselves and others are in the same position of wanting happiness and not wanting suffering, but we are entangled in a web of ignorance that prevents us from achieving those goals. Far from regarding it as an "every man for himself" situation, we should meditate upon the equality of self and others and the need to be helpful to other beings.

~ From Bodhicitta: Cultivating the Compassionate Mind of Enlightenment by Ven. Lobsang Gyatso, translated by Ven. Sherab Gyatso, published by Snow Lion Publications
This quote brings to mind an article I just read in New Scientist online.

In an article called "Why altruism paid off for our ancestors," it is argued that new research indicates altruism may have been a necessary survival skill for our early ancestors. A genetic study of contemporary foraging tribes in Australia, Africa, and the among the Inuit (that was then extrapolated to reveal genetic variation among their ancestors) suggests that competition between groups and relatedness within groups contributed to altruistic behavior between group members.
Samuel Bowles at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, US, ... conducted a genetic analysis of contemporary foraging groups, including Australian aboriginals, native Siberian Inuit populations and indigenous tribal groups in Africa.

The genetic variation found within these modern-day groups was analysed and then used to estimate the kind of genetic variation that would have existed in ancestral populations of hunter-gatherer from the Pleistocene and early Holocene (150,000 to 10,000 years ago, combined). “These modern groups live today as most scholars believe our distant ancestors did,” Bowles explains.

He calculated that early human individuals were likely to be substantially more related to each other than previously thought. But Bowles found bigger genetic differences than expected between discrete groups of ancient peoples. These conditions would have favoured altruistic behaviour, says Bowles.

He also concluded that monogamy leveled the cost of altruistic behavior among males. “Monogamy limits the ability of the stronger or more aggressive males to monopolise copulation,” says Bowles. “Humans are very unusual in this way.”

Bowles does not go so far as to argue for a genetic basis for altruism, but there definitely seems to be a learned behavioral component to it that we have had for a very long time. Altruism more than likely contributed to our survival and evolution. When we consider that Neanderthals ate each other in time of hardship, it seems that altruism may have favored us (smaller, weaker) over them (stronger, bigger).

When we modern humans engage in altruistic behavior, we are connecting with our shared experience as beings who want to be happy and avoid suffering. That there may be some deep-seated evolutionary imperative behind such behavior does nothing to diminish its power to connect us to each other.

As Buddhists, we vow to help all beings end their suffering and attain freedom. How very cool that this spiritual commitment may also have a biological foundation.

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