This is related to How does "be altruist to those who are similar to you" evolve?

Altruism that is

  1. Not reciprocal
  2. Not familiar

has little explanation. One possible explanation is that the trait itself may correlate well with genetics. One great answer there is that often the cost of altruism is small anyway. It can explain why people vote. Here the expense is small anyway.

Still there seems to be some factors that are even bigger.

Let's take a look at people that die for their ideology. Christian martyrs, Muslim suicide bombers, or Communist guerilla fighters. They seem to get so little and well, die.

And that's pretty common. It seems pretty easy for a leader or pedagogue to rouse men to be soldiers. Of course, becoming a soldier is a pretty shitty job, yet most men don't mind.

These people make a huge sacrifice for the sake of their country, ideology, or people that are not even genetically related to them.


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    $\begingroup$ If it does not pay on genetic level (as they die, perhaps without offsprings), it may be beneficial on memetic level - i.e. spread (or defend) the idea of country, religion, ideology etc. I does not even need to give any (genetical) advantage to others. $\endgroup$ Commented May 23, 2012 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ Traits do not have to give an advantage, they can simply not bear significant enough of a disadvantage in survival of a common gene (/genetic group). $\endgroup$
    – Armatus
    Commented May 23, 2012 at 16:55
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    $\begingroup$ Or maybe they're just removing themselves from the gene pool... $\endgroup$
    – nico
    Commented May 23, 2012 at 16:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Armatus A trait that removes you from the gene pool has a huge disadvantage though. In fact, a decisive, win-every-argument one (not accounting for memetics here, nor for the fact that martyrs might first bear offsprings, which doesn’t seem to be the case usually). $\endgroup$ Commented May 24, 2012 at 10:46
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for Piotr Migdal, and that memetic may help genetic. That's I think how it works. For example, by dying for socialism, you may benefit fellow socialists. But that would require SIGNIFICANT non genetic based non reciprocal altruism which is strange. Or perhaps memetic, like genes, have a life of it's own? Now Budha's question of "Who am I?" start getting more and more reasonable. $\endgroup$
    – user4951
    Commented May 24, 2012 at 10:50

2 Answers 2


Your question is quite broad and asks for explanations for various behaviours which can lead to self-sacrifice.

Religious reasons: The genetic influence here may be a predisposition to let others influence you. This is what gives rise to culture in the first place, in other words: the predisposition to at some point maybe sacrifice yourself because you are taught to do so can only die out if the basic behaviour which gives rise to culture dies out. Cultures which lead their members to die may decimate their own numbers, but they will not wipe out culture itself because in the bigger scale, those with culture do better than those without. (Plus, those who sacrifice themselves may have children as well, so any genetic influence on their behaviour can be carried on.) This also goes far into the field of memetic evolution, which is disputed but may be interesting to read about.

Political reasons: As in, dying for one's nation or country rather than because of teachings. This probably has a defensive behaviour towards one's own group as the genetic influence. Also, reputation plays a big role: see shigeta's excellent answer.

You also mention willingness to subordinate oneself which is a very common pattern not only in humans. Richard Dawkins touches on this in The Selfish Gene, but there are probably papers more focussed on this particular topic out there as well.

I think it is far-fetched to assume a genetic inheritance of in general "willingness to die for something" (which would be required for genetic evolution to work on it). Each thing that some people may be willing to die for can have completely different reasons. I think in these terms the willingness to die is usually an exaggeration of a behaviour which evolved for different reasons.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the predisposition to let others influence you theory. That make sense. Like telomere for example. Death it self doesn't help, but telomere does. The same way dying for ideologies doesn't help, but predisposition to let others influence you might. Thanks Armatus. $\endgroup$
    – user4951
    Commented May 24, 2012 at 10:52

There isn an effect called "Indirect reciprocity" where individuals just give to everyone they meet without direct requirement of reciprocity.

This sort of benefit to others is common - hospitality to strangers, general politeness, good customer service all fall along these lines. You hope they will come back and benefit you again, but maybe they will tell someone else who will know you are a good community member.

It is only sustainable in a system where the cost/benefit ratio is less than the reputation benefit of the act. It sounds as if this is only good for public acts but if the benefit is transferred to a social entity that outlasts the individual (like your children, a relative's children, a religion or a corporation say), the result could still hold.

If you think about typical morality/ethics really it still makes sense to think that what we call altruism must still have a net positive benefit. If there is no benefit long term or to anyone, it really isn't useful or even good, its random. What we usually call altruism is usually some sort of reciprocal cooperation.

A soldier who dies in combat or someone who dies for their beliefs but everyone knows about it as a public statement benefits from their act indirectly. I don't think its altruism in the pure sense of the word. Defending the nation, ones' beliefs or whatever is, in its sense its own reward. Veterans come back from a war are hopefully respected for their work. Having a purple heart can be a good thing to show people. I'm not saying these people are adequately compensated for what they have been through, but just trying to draw a distinction between pure biological altruism and 'indirect reciprocity'.

Examples of Indirect reciprocity might be the use of tax money to build highways and build power and water infrastructure. Its important - its the glue that holds a nation or a group together. If you got punished for doing these things we wouldn't be hanging as a nation very long!

A martyr with no family at all who would benefit would still count as an altruism I think, but most acts of public piety and sacrifice do benefit the individual by reputation. Something to think about.

  • $\begingroup$ I don’t see the connection. The individuals certainly have no benefit from dying. There is no reciprocity in such an action towards the individual (there may still be towards alleles, if those are shared between the martyr and those (s)he died for) – the cost/benefit ratio is infinite. None of the benefits you list apply to martyrs, only to people who stop one step short of martyrdom. $\endgroup$ Commented May 24, 2012 at 10:49
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    $\begingroup$ Actually it does. Say a member of Thio family dies for his country. Perhaps Thio families get respected more. But that's far fetch. That's still reciprocal. $\endgroup$
    – user4951
    Commented May 24, 2012 at 10:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Jim On the allele level, yes. But this answer makes it sound as if the individual had an advantage, and that’s patently not the case. $\endgroup$ Commented May 24, 2012 at 11:59
  • $\begingroup$ @JimThio Its an extension of reciprocal altruism - i think you have to stretch biological theories to cover some human behavior, but as long as the offspring or relatives benefit it still makes sense. I do think i mentioned this. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Commented May 24, 2012 at 17:05
  • $\begingroup$ I would say a better question would be, "Why would anyone die for a cause?". People benefiting from a cause may not be genetically related. The cost is significant. The cause tend to benefit those who are similar, but because similarity doesn't mean genetically related, how come genes that say, "die for a cause" evolve? $\endgroup$
    – user4951
    Commented May 27, 2012 at 15:41

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