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Radiolab looks at the science behind altruism

On the most recent episode of WNYC’s Radiolab, the hour was devoted to finding out why one creature might stick its neck out for another. Using their endlessly entertaining approach to deconstructing the sciences, hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich tell three uniquely relevant stories in an attempt to explain the logic behind altruism.

The first one is about biologist George Price, who was left emotionally scarred by an equation he created that basically proved no act of self-sacrifice was purely altruistic. He spent the better part of his life thereafter trying to prove himself wrong, by giving away all his money to help the homeless.

The second story looks at a few people who were awarded the Carnegie Hero Fund for risking their life “to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the life of another person.” None of these people can really explain why they put themselves in such danger for a complete stranger, though some do feel as though they were called to do it—in a way that indicated (to me) an inner sense of the Golden Rule.

The final segment shows altruism through the eyes of political game theorists who have constructed computer models that calculate if being good (i.e. not antagonistic) is a winning strategy. The answer is yes, but with a sort of Old Testament perpsective of be nice, but be ready to take an eye for an eye. Not surprisingly, this is the segment I found most troubling, if only because I think it would benefit from the growing research in the field of civil resistance.

All in all, however, this Radiolab episode is well worth a listen, as you are guaranteed an entertaining and insightiful look at the science behind one of our most complex human traits.