Professor Oren Harman Delivers Lecture on Altruism

Professor Oren Harman delivering the lecture

The current Chair of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar-Ilan University of Israel, Professor Oren Harman has delivered a lecture on the topic, “The Evolution of Altruism” at the conference room of the International House.

The lecture, organised in collaboration with the University of Ghana Alumni Association, was attended by the Provost of the College of Humanities, Professor Samuel Agyei-Mensah and the immediate Past Chairman of the Alumni Council, Mr Kwesi Eduafo Yankey.   

Professor Harman explored the evolution of altruism focusing on scientific works that have been conducted in that regard.

He spoke about sacrifices and the reasons for which all organisms engaged in it saying it has been a question asked from the beginning of time. He said a variety of answers had been provided, some of which includes the fact that it is a part of our traditional and cultural settings, others relate to religion; as humans were created in the image of God while yet another response is that it is taught by humans through acts such as the breastfeeding of infants. By the 19th century, however, he said, altruism had become a scientific problem where scientists like Charles Darwin were interested in determining a formula to explain altruistic behaviour.

According to Professor Oren Harman, altruism can be found in every part of nature. He cited insects such as termites and honey bee, amoeba and bigger animals such as deer as organisms who exhibit altruistic behaviour and gave the example of a unit of female deer who would jump about six feet in order to draw all the attention on to themselves while signalling to the rest of the herd of the incoming danger when they see a predator. This, he termed as Biological Altruism. Professor Oren said biological altruism refers to any action by an organism which provides a fitness benefit to another while incurring a fitness cost. This term defines altruism for all living things except human beings.  Biological altruism he elaborated, looks at the results of the action and not the intentions behind the action like Psychological altruism does. Psychological altruism refers to altruistic behaviour in humans.

He stated that science has been able to develop three solutions to the issue of Altruism namely; nepotism, reciprocation and group selection. He explained altruism in nepotism as, the more two organisms are genetically closer, the more altruistic behaviour one would expect to find in between them. This theory was mathematically formulised by Bill Hamilton, an evolutionary biologist. However, since not all altruism happens between kins, there’s altruism from reciprocation. This form of altruism is as a result of business transactions; the “you scratch my back I scratch yours” syndrome.  He said although reciprocation played a big role in the evolution of altruism, group selection also contributes. The concept of Group selection indicates that sometimes natural selection works at the level of the group rather than at the level of individuals because groups can be so intertwined that natural selection sees the group as an individual and such instances are referred to as super organisms. Examples of such are termites, wasps, ants.

Professor Oren said that over the years, scientists have conducted and are still conducting series of tests to determine the molecules in the precise part of the brain that allows for altruistic behaviour. Recent scientific papers which experimented on rats have reported that individuals are more likely to be altruistic if they have more of the pro-social genes which comprises of the oxytocin and vasopressin molecules. He also said that in a recent research conducted by some genetic scientists which involved taking the genotypes of people, only 4% variance was explained for by the genotype.

He ended his submission by criticising and downplaying the idea of scientist trying to seek for a biological formula for altruism as he felt the concept of altruism was too grand to be explained by just biology. He cited the example of Charles Darwin who is an evolution biologist and propounded one of the most controversial formulas on altruism but later killed himself in retrospect of that formula. He ended on the note that all questions cannot be answered by science and so the great challenge of the 21st century is defining the boundary to which science can answer questions and where it would be of no use.

A cross-section of the audience at the lecture

Contributions and questions were invited from the audience. Mr. Kwesi Yankey who moderated the session, presented University souvenirs to Professor Oren.

Delivering the closing remarks, Professor Samuel Agyei-Mensah, Provost of the College of Humanities thanked Professor Oren for the insightful presentation as well as the audience for attending.

 Mr Kobina Yankey making a presentation to Professor Oren

Professor Oren was born in Jerusalem, studied history and biology in Hebrew University and graduated Summa Cum laude. He spent two years at Harvard conducting research while teaching in the Departments of History and Science and received two Degree awards from Oxford University. His fields of research includes twentieth century genetics, evolution of altruism, the culture and history of science among others. His book, The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, won the 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He is also a winner of the Alon Academic Excellence award.