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Explaining Extreme Altruism

One of the first feel-good stories of 2007 is New York City’s Subway Samaritan, Wesley Autrey. A 50-year-old black construction worker, he was standing on the subway platform with his two daughters when a young white man nearby suffered a seizure and fell on the tracks. Autrey leapt onto the tracks and pinned the stranger down as the subway raced overhead, so close that it greased Autrey’s hair.

Do such acts of extreme, death-risking altruism provide evidence of God’s existence? Francis Collins thinks so. Collins is director of the Human Genome Project and a born-again Christian, and I interviewed him for the February issue of National Geographic.

In the Q&A, we have this exchange:

Horgan: What do you think of Darwinian explanations of altruism, or what you call agape, totally selfless love and compassion for someone not directly related to you?

Collins: It’s been a little of a just-so story so far. Many would argue that altruism has been supported by evolution because it helps the group survive. But some people sacrificially give of themselves to those who are outside their group and with whom they have absolutely nothing in common. Like Mother Teresa, Oscar Schindler, many others. That is the nobility of humankind in its purist form. That doesn’t seem like it can be explained by a Darwinian model.

The Darwinian explanation, called reciprocal altruism, was invented in the 1970s by the crazy genius Robert Trivers. Evolution would favor altruistic behavior toward non-kin, Trivers argued, if the behavior resulted in a net, aggregate benefit for Samaritans and/or their kin. Tit for tat.

The true Samaritan acts out of compassion, not conscious calculation, and he might receive no tit for his tat. But Wesley Autrey did. In addition to all the adulation, he has received a check from Donald Trump (whose generosity we sneer at, because it is so obviously self-aggrandizing).

I lean toward cultural indoctrination rather than Darwinian or divine explanations. Autrey served in the Navy, and so he was drilled in self-sacrifice. And we are all taught since childhood to admire people who jump on grenades, die for our sins and so on.

Most of us—thank God!--resist this brainwashing. Self-interest trumps self-sacrifice. That gives me hope for humanity, as I’ll explain in my next post.



Nature vs. Nurture, or vice versa. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I would say survival of the pack usually, but his Naval Service probably had the most effect on him. Oddly enough it seems he squashed the Milgrim Experiment.


This reminds me of the story of Densha Otoko - the Japanese "Train Man" cultural/marketing phenomenon.

It's part cultural indoctrination, part product placement... ie, it's the cause/effect of an increasingly efficient global market economy (wherein anything marketing-culture positive will naturally be monetized (some might say co-opted), and will, itself, be influenced by that monetization - creating a feedback loop that survives for a only a short length of time (15 minutes or so, a unit of measure that scientists call "Warhols").

Norris Dupre

Both the original story and the reference to it in this article would be just as effective and interesting to read without the need to mention the ethnicity of the parties involved in the subway incident. What significance is there in telling me, the reader, that it was a black man helping a white man? In the end, it should only matter that it was one person helping another.

John Horgan

Can anyone tell Norris why the ethnicity is relevant?

mike cook

One of the worst aspects of the promise of eternal life that early Christianity had to defeat was the unfortunate reality that enthusiastic belief in the truth of this promise quickly lead to a lot of suicide cults in the Christian areas of present day Turkey.

After all, if you believe that paradise awaits, why endure all the hardships and injustice of this veil of tears? True believers would provoke the Roman authorities with deliberate disobediance because they had literally lost their fear of death!

In a way, totally unselfish heroism is the same thing as the urge to martyrdom. When I was young in the Vietnam era I took a lot of stupid chances just because I totally assumed I was immortal. The worst chance was fighting a fire on the U.S.S. Desoto County right in Little Creek, VA, harbor in 1971.

By the grace of God I survived, but God had to overcome the quite real fact that chance-taking is particularly built into the DNA of young males, which is exactly why they are the backbones of armies.

Another interesting factoid is that before actually flying over to Vietnam later on I proposed marriage to about a dozen females, all of whom had the good sense to refuse me. It turns out this is also quite common behavior for young males headed to battle and has a perfectly understandable Darwinian interpretation.

Upon returning from the conflict, I married the first gal I met in a bar and started having a family. Also quite predictable. What they call post traumatic stress syndrome may be nothing but the usual stage of starting to realize that you can't throw your life away recklessly because now you have responsibilities, therefore you develop fears, phobias, and cowardice.

Later on, when the kids are raised, you start getting brave again. I'd love to be a part of the "surge" into Iraq, for the reason that there are some genuinely backwards and nasty folks there (the kind who blow up university students) and life so rarely provides a chance to tilt your lance against genuine evil. Best yet, once you are 60-years-old or more what the heck do you have to lose?

I do think that all highly educated, establishment types should stay home into their advanced old age and pontificate like Gandhi on pacifist nonsensense. Gandhi also advised the English that they should just surrender to Hitler and let him do whatever with the British Isles.

That would (in reality) never do because the English are genuinely a warlike people, which means to say they venture forth from a resource-deprived island determined to bring such order and justice to a heathen world sufficient that trade and other intercourse beneficial to civilized island peoples (except the Irish) can progress magnificently.

The Irish, for their part, preserved the best writings of the ancient world through monastic dedication and sheer craftsmanship, then ventured out into the world as the mercenary foot soldiers of the British Empire, outshining even the Hessians in this lowly role.

I have not seen Clint Eastwood's film on the doomed Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima. My own father was based on that island soon aftter the American conquest, flying out in a fragile flying boat crammed with gasolene to patrol for the remnants of the Emperor's navy.

Heroism and cowardice both make sense, in their context. So do aggression and pacifism.

Robert Allan

We, as humans, always seem to want to attach the good things that people do, to something that they try to understand in real terms.
This person, who without thought. Immediately reacted to what his conscious mind dictated and if people can't understand this, they ultimately feel guilt.

John Horgan

Nice post Mike Cook. I feel like I'm getting to know you guys, but you keep surprising me.

No one has answered Norris's question about the Subway Samaritan: "What significance is there in telling me, the reader, that it was a black man helping a white man?" So I will. From a Darwinian perspective, altruism becomes harder to explain as the genetic distance between benefactor and beneficiary increases. Things get really tricky when the Samaritan helps other species. Reciprocal altruism doesn't explain why my wife chops up frozen rats and feeds them to a redtail hawk with a busted leg.

Alan Benner

Wesley Autrey is now a hero - known throughout the land as a brave and heartful man. He didn't die, didn't even get seriously hurt, and he did an action that will be remembered for decades as an example of the best features of the human spirit.

Two weeks ago, he was just an ordinary schmuck, like the rest of us.

Seems to me that, from a purely self-interested looking-out-for-#1 point of view, he did exactly the expected thing. Who among us wouldn't do the same? -- the ladies love a hero...


Would he have done the same thing in a dark corner with no one to witness his action, and for a person who would never remember the act? I think he would have. Forget all this non-sense about recognition and heroism being his motivation - those are complex motivations that require a chain of reasoning and are easily overridden.

Compassion - an emotional response - is the only thing immediate enough (and overwhelming enough) to drive anyone to perform such an act.

John Horgan

FYI, the above-mentioned “crazy genius” Robert Trivers, inventor (discoverer?) of reciprocal altruism and other Darwinian principles, just won the the $500,000 Crafoord Prize in Biosciences. For more on the prize and on Trivers, see Congrats, Bob!

todd tucker

My father coined the ideal of "enlightend altruism" sometime in the 60's.It was for our ears only.He was a PHD in speech and english and a selfless man.The "Train man" reacted without thought or recprical or altruism.He just did it. A good man.

Alec Dundas

The idea that an altruistic act can somehow be rendered meaningless by an analysis of later personal gain is rather absurd.

In other words, just because the man is a hero after-the-fact does in no way prove that he had the time to weightily balance the risk to his life versus the potential gain for his own person.


Not to split hairs but are you trying to make a point about social groups by mentioning savior and saved's races? Or was that superfluous information?


To John Horgan.
The parallel you are making between the black man -white man assumed ostracism, and observed animosity between different animal species is downright racist, if not worse.I think that New York has finally reached a modicum of decency, so that human behavior may ,more often than not,trenscend the color issue. Black and white are not different species, just variations of the remaining Homo species, Homo Sapiens. Proper(binomial)nomenclature is always appreciated.

Jennifer Loewenherz

I wondered if anyone was going to go on the attack when Horgan mentioned different species in response to the race being mentioned. But as usual meanings can so easily get lost in print.
I may be speaking out of turn since I do not know Horgan personally, but given his continually enlightened articles I can't imagine him a racist. When it comes to science we have to get past the race issue in a different way because race can be a factor and just because it is not politically correct to mention it does not make it any less a variable at times.
What this man did to save another humans life is more than amazing because it truly does defy reason. Logic deems it impossible for him to have thought of anything else other than an intense need to come to someone’s aid. Military training perhaps, but I doubt every soldier would have taken such a chance. It has to be based on compassion and the flight or fight reaction. What an incredible man (heart).
With that said the race issue comes into play on many levels. One just the fact that in our society today the animosity may not be as great as before but lets not be blind, it is still out there…thank god (so to speak) this man did not see color. I think Horgan was just leaping to the extreme example of his wife (who seems great by the way from this article and the Winter Solstice article) to get his point across because it is unlikely that most of us will ever be so close to true altruism as this man. Nature deems us to think of ourselves first 99% of the time then our children (if we have them) then family then a wider circle of those with meaning to us in some way. When we see humans (and other species) as being different we are less likely to risk our selves in even the smallest ways. So as you can see race can be a factor without it being racist.
In respect for Horgan this is my explanation for race being a factor and while I think I came to an unneeded defense I just could not resist.
One last question though: How did this ever get to the idea that it proves or disproves god? This was not divine intervention this was totally human.

Jon Bebee

It's funny how most all scientific questions or thoughts end up in a "proves or disproves god" debate. It seems people are so ready to jump at the arguement from ANY angle at any given moment. All just to make themselves feel justified for whatever it is they believe. It gets old, and I'm tired of the debate altogether. But, I do have two last questions of my own though. For athiest: can you prove it? For believers: what is God made of? And, don't tell me he's transcendent of our reality. You can't have something from nothing or else it doesn't exist. My rant is finished.

John Horgan

Those of you still following this thread should check out my followup post, inspired by George Bush's State of the Union address. See

John Horgan

That link ain't working. Just go to the main link,, and look for "George Bush and Extreme Altruism."

John Horgan

Yeesh! Still doesn't work, cuz of the punctuation at the end. Try this:

By the way, I haven't addressed the "racism" charge above because to be honest I don't understand it. I mentioned my wife helping other species as the ultimate in non-Darwinian altruism, and somehow that implies that I think blacks and whites are different species? That makes no sense, and in general I only reply to objections that make sense. Oh, and thanks for sticking up for me Jennifer.

Sara Mar

My late entry on this subject is a rambling about the behaviors/acts that impress us as altruistic and heroic. As a result of a split-second decision, Wesley Autrey suddenly became a national hero—a nation’s proud son. What did Pres. Bush say about him? “There is something wonderful about a country that produces a brave and humble man like Wesley Autrey.” We even credit ourselves collectively for one man’s ultimate act of altruism.

My guess is that the life of Wesley Autrey, a construction worker, father, former service man, is filled with other examples of altruistic and heroic behavior sustained over long periods of time—not unlike the lives of average people worldwide. Yet, anyone looking into Mr. Autry’s life prior to his brave subway rescue might not find anything worth writing about, by most standards.

Related considerations were playing on my mind when I met a woman whose story symbolizes, to me, the kind of heroism that ought to impress and inspire us, and is equally worthy of any President's or person's recognition. She arrived here from an Asian country with her husband and five children, including an infant. Her abusive and alcoholic husband disappeared shortly after, never to return. Speaking no English, without any other family or network, ignorant of services and resources available to her, she worked two jobs for 25 years, all of her children earned college degrees, and she owns a humble condo in upper Westchester. She never met another partner. (Incidentally, she never owned a car or had a driver’s license.) This is long-term, extreme and sustained altruism and heroism. Darwinian explanations, anyone?


For if God were all loving, would that guy of had a seizure in the first place and would it of also put Wesley Autrey in harms way to save that dysfunctional person?
Why are there symptoms of disorder in human health (seizures), mental or physical retardation, heroism or severe violence among Mankind anyway?

Explain why Innocence can be Forsaken!!

"God" is not Love nor Hate. What "God" wants "God" gets, "God" help us all....

Most reactions in life are far too difficult to explain logically...

Mr Social

As Mr Collins says this cannot be explained by the Darwinian model, but the new social world approach picks up social man from primates as humans going beyond nature. E. O. Wilson (father of sociobiology) and campainger on the environment is on the look out for a theory which unifies culture and evolution and it is on the horizon. Explaining extreme altruism and all manner of social behaviours, well....socially. The social world is the physical landscapes within the natural world. When humans built huts, houses and buildings it wasn't to shut them in it was to shut nature's forces out. It's difficult to get across in a few lines but Darwinian evolution and natural selection are not history's verb. They are a part of history, 99.9% even more than that, 99.9999%. There has been a gross over extension on evolutionary theory in recent years trying to describe high-tech, moral and modern ethical problems like contraception, abortion, euthanasia, altruism, etc. Darwin in 'Origin' and 'Descent' clearly delineated natural selection from 'man's methodological selection', 'artificial selection' so it shouldn't be a surprise that 150 years after he wrote that the penny finally drops.


I see this as empathy.
Somebody is going to suffer, you don't want them to.
Why? Because through your life experience you've become empathetic.
So why do we sometimes do it and sometimes don't? We want to help people who suffer or are about to suffer whenever we encounter them, but sometimes we are just too afraid due to the danger involved.
What about mortal danger? There is a question in your head: Can I let this happen to that person? If the answer is "no", then fear is the decider.
So for me the question is this: Is development of empathy explainable by the Darwinian model?
As a side note, I think self sacrifice is actually not part of the plan when somebody does something like this. I think, at the time, they see it more as risk.

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