February 28, 2018

How is Your Fecundity?

In evolutionary biology, organisms behave altruistically when individual behaviors benefit other organisms. Biologists measure altruism in terms of fecundity. In behaving altruistically, organisms may reduce the number of personal offspring but boost the number of offspring generated by other organisms. This biological notion of altruism does not reflect the everyday concept. For many people, altruism describes the conscious intention of one individual helping another. Some of the most interesting examples of biological altruism, however, exist among creatures presumably incapable of conscious thought (e.g., insects). For biologists, therefore, the consequences of an action for population fecundity determines whether the action counts as altruistic, not the intention behind the altruistic action.

Pomegranate fruit image

At STEM-VRSE, we work with two groups of people, researchers and educators. Their offspring represent the world's future biologists, chemists, computer engineers, mathematicians, and physicists. From a classical Darwinian viewpoint, our existence as a nonprofit organization may appear puzzling. Natural selection leads us to expect organizations to behave in ways that increase their own chances of survival and reproduction, not those of others. By behaving altruistically we must reduce our own fitness, so should be at a selective disadvantage. But, if this is the case, how do nonprofit organizations such as STEM-VRSE continue to exist?

Maybe the answer to our question lies not in the altruistic actions of organizations, but the manner in which individual members within organizations view altruism. In biological terms, the problem of altruism connects with questions about the level at which natural selection acts. If natural selection acts exclusively at the individual level, then altruism may not evolve. However, what if nonprofit organizational altruism reflects the actions of STEM-VRSE members for the benefit of STEM-VRSE outcomes? If this does indeed describe nonprofit organizational altruism, then maybe those organizations composed only or mainly of selfish members go extinct, leaving behind organizations containing altruists. These surviving organizations then ensure the existence of the next generation of people interested in conducting research and teaching others about the wonder of our shared existence.

Cheers and enjoy your fecundity, today!

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