There is much debate about altruism. Does it really exist? Why should it exist? If it does exist, is it really disguised self-interest (Mother Teresa once claimed that her main motivation was looking after her own feelings)? Or does it have a genetic/Darwinian basis, encapsulated in biologist J.B.S. Haldane’s famous quote “Would I lay down my life to save my brother? No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.”
Or is it, perhaps, just there. One of the most touching stories that I have ever heard concerns a softball game between Western Oregon and Central Washington in 2010. With two runners on base, diminutive senior Sara Tucholsky, just 5’2”, hit the first home run of her life, but overran first base in her excitement. Turning back to touch it, she twisted her right knee and collapsed in a heap. The umpire was obdurate – her team couldn’t help her, and if she couldn’t get round under her own steam, she would have to be replaced.
The a voice came from behind him – the voice of Mallory Holtmann, captain of the opposition “Excuse me, would it be OK if we carried her around and she touched each bag?” It was OK. And they did.
If that story touches you, as it did me, then perhaps there is yet hope for our future. Because altruism, and trust in the altruism of others, is one of the few ways (perhaps the only way) that we can overcome the dreadful dilemmas posed by game theory, in the form of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and The Tragedy of the Commons. You can read about these dilemmas here (http://lenfisherscience.com/60-what-is-the-nash-equilibrium-why-does-it-matter/), and you can read the story of Sara Tucholsky here (http://sports.espn.go.com/ncaa/columns/story?columnist=hays_graham&id=3372631).