Good grief

Book explores the dark side of altruism

Feature Image
Mark Smith

The world teems with ills. By way of salving the wounds, we build houses for the impoverished, make charitable donations, serve meals at soup kitchens, mentor disadvantaged youth, volunteer for medical missions. Governments around the world boast a staggering array of public policies intended to serve as domestic social safety nets for their own citizens, as well as foreign policies intended to assist countries afflicted by war, famine and plague.

But what about altruism’s dark underbelly? Genocidal armies put themselves at great risk to promote their own group’s success, even as they murder others. Animal hoarders, despite their good intentions, harm the creatures they mean to save. Sandwich-generation caregivers struggle to meet the needs of their parents and children while juggling work and household responsibilities; invariably, the strain compromises the quality of care received by one generation or the other. 

Guruprasad Madhavan, MBA ’07, PhD ’09, knows a thing or two about helping. As a grad student he developed a non-invasive, non-pharmacological medical device to promote leg circulation. Instead of launching a strike-it-rich start-up company, he opted for a career in the public sector. Today, he is a program officer at the National Academies in Washington, D.C., directing a study to set federal vaccine development priorities.

At the same time, Madhavan can’t avoid contemplating the blurry, gray zone between altruism and what he calls “pathological altruism.”

“Altruism is rife with the potential for pathology,” he says. “Acute, feel-good measures and policies can become chronically dysfunctional or deleterious; they’re at the crux of the most unsustainable policies.”

In November 2011 — on World Kindness Day — Oxford University Press released Pathological Altruism, a 411-page compendium co-edited by Madhavan with Oakland University Associate Professor of Engineering Barbara Oakley, Hebrew University lecturer Ariel Knafo and Madhavan’s mentor and long-time collaborator, Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences and Anthropology David Sloan Wilson, a Binghamton University expert on altruism and evolution.

The book’s 31 chapters — dense, but intended for both lay readers and academics — touch on everything from animal hoarding to the morality of selling a kidney, from the altruistic motivations embraced by suicide attackers to the downside of international economic aid, with stops along the way for the biochemistry of addiction, the evolutionary biology of abusive relationships and compassion fatigue. The New York Times science writer Natalie Angier called it “a scholarly yet surprisingly spritely volume.” Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson said, “This is one of the few books in evolutionary biology I’ve read in the past 10 years that taught me something completely new.”

The project traces its genesis to a brunch Madhavan and Oakley shared in midtown Manhattan in 2008. Oakley was giving a talk, so Madhavan caught a bus from Binghamton to the city for a day. The economy was in the tailspin referred to as the Great Recession, and Madhavan — then a newly minted MBA — had been reading Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, in which historian Gregory Clark examines the efficacy of foreign assistance programs and finds many sorely lacking. “We started applying the principles of engineering — trade-offs and entropy — to altruistic intentions that may actually backfire,” says Madhavan, who was grappling with questions about the federal government’s attempts at the time to stave off a second Great Depression. “By the end of the brunch, we had a good mental idea about the nature of our book.”

Pathological Altruism followed organically from Oakley’s earlier works, Cold-Blooded Kindness and Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend. “If we want to work together to really make a better society, we have to understand how pathologies of self-righteousness and certitude can be just as pernicious as purposefully doing bad things,” she says. But in researching Cold-Blooded Kindness and Evil Genes, Oakley had come up short in the search for scholars contemplating the questions to which she sought answers.

She and Madhavan decided that Pathological Altruism might be a vehicle to furnish those insights, and they invited psychologists, mathematicians, economists, criminologists, physicians, neuroscientists and sociologists to craft essays on the theme. “What better way to research [a topic] than to go out and ask some of the world’s leading experts to think about this idea and draw on their expertise,” she says. “This book was an attempt to provide a foundation for an entirely new discipline using insights from some of the world’s leading thinkers in the many different areas that this new field relates to.”

The project wasn’t easy, says Oakley, especially because, unlike David Sloan Wilson — who authored the book’s final chapter, “Pathology, Evolution, and Altruism” — many researchers considered experts in altruism were hostile to the proposition that it might have a dark side. “People don’t want to believe in this — it’s almost heretical to suggest it could be bad,” says Madhavan, who with Oakley co-authored a chapter on international economic aid. “We’ve idealized altruism and empathy, but just looking at the other side is an important part of scientific discovery.”

An evolutionary framework yields vital insights into the questions Madhavan and Oakley raised about trade-offs, Wilson says. “Altruism evolved in a certain context. It’s advantageous in certain situations but not others.” Imagine, he suggests, a relationship without accountability or trust, a one-shot transaction. Picking up a hitchhiking stranger, for example, compared with giving a ride to a friend whose car is at the shop. “Anyplace where you feel unsafe, when there’s no trust and you’re likely to be exploited, it’s not a good place for altruism,” he says. “Interactions among strangers can be risky. We save altruism for our friends and families, or situations that are protected.” A mother might go hungry, rather than see her child starve.

“Altruism is paradoxical,” Wilson notes. “It involves self-sacrifice, but it only persists if those self-sacrificial people’s genes survive. It’s the paradox that’s been with the world for a long time. When you imagine non-altruists among altruists, it’s like a predator-prey relationship.”

This spring, Wilson and Oakley began planning a conference — tentatively titled “Reconciliation through Science: Engineering a Bridge between Political Liberals and Conservatives” — that applies insights from their work on Pathological Altruism. “The idea is to get people past their sense of self-righteousness and extremism to realize we’re all working together,” Oakley says.

Since he started work on Pathological Altruism, Madhavan says he’s often found himself meditating on its themes as he goes about his job in D.C. “Frequently when you’re confronting a situation that piques your empathy, people leap into helping,” he says. “It’s like Velcro. You’re immediately sticky and you can’t get yourself out.”

Instead, says Madhavan, he now models his response on the water lily. No matter the wind, rain or waves that buffet its floating leaves and blossoms, water simply pools on its waxen surface. For Madhavan, it’s the perfect analogy for altruism at its best — floating in a sea of needs, but far from drowning. “It’s constantly submerged, but you look at the pad and you can see the water droplets,” he says. “It’s attached and detached.”


Guruprasad Madhavan and Binghamton Professor David Sloan Wilson have a website called