Ultimate and Proximate, Genetic and Environmental: History of the Explanations of Altruism Since the 1960s

Petteri Pietikäinen, Otto Pipatti

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterScientificpeer-review


Since the 1960s, there has been a growing interest in altruism and concepts related to it, such as reciprocity, cooperation and empathy. The two main approaches to the topic have been psychological and biological: psychologists and other researchers in the human sciences have focused on empathy and motivational states, while biologists – especially evolutionary researchers – have drawn on the theories of inclusive fitness (kin selection), reciprocal altruism and others which ultimately derive from a mixture of these. In this chapter, the conceptual history of altruism (since the 1960s) is examined within the framework of evolutionary and psychological ideas and theories, with an emphasis on the relationship between genetic and environmentalist approaches to altruism. Our historical approach to the knowledge production surrounding altruism as a concept is three-fold. Firstly, we examine the evolutionary approach to altruism, especially the influential behavioural and genetic theories of William Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and others. We then turn to psychological and environmental explanations of altruism, which focus on the altruistic personality and the issues of empathy and motivation. In the final section, we discuss anthropological and historical studies in which the so-called ultimate and proximate explanations of cooperation and goodness (or competition and selfishness) are in the foreground. In all these sections, we examine how the researchers defined and explained altruism and how they described the respective importance of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors to altruism.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIn Pursuit of Healthy Environments : Historical Cases on the Environment-Health Nexus
EditorsEsa Ruuskanen, Heini Hakosalo
Number of pages21
Publication date2020
ISBN (Print)9780367259051
ISBN (Electronic)9780367259099
Publication statusPublished - 2020
MoE publication typeA3 Book chapter

Publication series

NameRoutledge Studies in Environment, Culture, and Society

Fields of Science

  • 5141 Sociology

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