University of Oulu

Pietikäinen, P. & Pipatti, O. (2021). Ultimate and proximate, genetic and environmental: History of the explanations of altruism since the 1960s. In E. Ruuskanen & H. Hakosalo (Eds.), In pursuit of healthy environments: Historical cases on the environment–health nexus (pp. 218-238). Routledge.

Ultimate and proximate, genetic and environmental : history of the explanations of altruism since the 1960s

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Author: Pietikäinen, Petteri1; Pipatti, Otto2
Organizations: 1History of Sciences and Ideas, University of Oulu, Finland
2Department of Social Research, University of Helsinki, Finland
Format: article
Version: accepted version
Access: open
Online Access: PDF Full Text (PDF, 0.6 MB)
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Language: English
Published: Routledge, 2021
Publish Date: 2022-05-13


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.

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ISBN: 978-0-367-25909-9
ISBN Print: 978-0-367-25905-1
Pages: 218 - 238
DOI: 10.4324/9780367259099-16
Host publication: In pursuit of healthy environments : historical cases on the environment–health nexus
Host publication editor: Ruuskanen, Esa
Hakosalo, Heini
Type of Publication: A3 Book chapter
Field of Science: 615 History and archaeology
Copyright information: © 2021 selection and editorial matter, Esa Ruuskanen and Heini Hakosalo; individual chapters, the contributors. This is an Accepted Manuscript of a book chapter published by Routledge in In pursuit of healthy environments: Historical cases on the environment–health nexus on 13 November 2020, available online: