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The nature of human altruism

Nature volume 425, pages 785791 (23 October 2003) | Download Citation

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Abstract

Some of the most fundamental questions concerning our evolutionary origins, our social relations, and the organization of society are centred around issues of altruism and selfishness. Experimental evidence indicates that human altruism is a powerful force and is unique in the animal world. However, there is much individual heterogeneity and the interaction between altruists and selfish individuals is vital to human cooperation. Depending on the environment, a minority of altruists can force a majority of selfish individuals to cooperate or, conversely, a few egoists can induce a large number of altruists to defect. Current gene-based evolutionary theories cannot explain important patterns of human altruism, pointing towards the importance of both theories of cultural evolution as well as gene–culture co-evolution.

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Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge support by the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for the Analysis of Economic Growth, by the Swiss National Science Foundation and by the MacArthur Foundation Network on Economic Environments and the Evolution of Individual Preferences and Social Norms. We thank G. Bornstein, S. Bowles, R. Boyd, M. Brewer, J. Carpenter, S. Gächter, H. Gintis, J. Henrich, K. Hill, M. Milinski, P. Richerson, A. Riedl, K. Sigmund, E. A. Smith, D. S. Wilson and T. Yamagichi for comments on the manuscript, and M. Naef, D. Reding and M. Jörg for their research assistance.

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  1. University of Zürich, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, Blümlisalpstrasse 10, CH-8006 Zürich, Switzerland

    • Ernst Fehr
    •  & Urs Fischbacher

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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Ernst Fehr.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02043

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