Biological Altruism and Egg Donation

The original article by Lisa Stack of CNY Fertility appears on Blogher.

In honor of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, it is ‘fitting’ (Survival of the fittest? OK, bad evolutionary biology joke.) to explore the biological altruism of egg donation. According to his 1871 publication, The Descent of Man Darwin concluded that, “…self-sacrificial behavior, though disadvantageous for the individual ‘savage’, might be beneficial at the group level: “a tribe including many members who...were always ready to give aid to each other and sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection”.” What role then, do egg donors play? According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, an amazing role: “In evolutionary biology, an organism is said to behave altruistically when its behavior benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself. The costs and benefits are measured in terms of reproductive fitness, or expected number of offspring. So by behaving altruistically, an organism reduces the number of offspring it is likely to produce itself, but boosts the number that other organisms are likely to produce. This biological notion of altruism is not identical to the everyday concept. In everyday parlance, an action would only be called ‘altruistic’ if it was done with the conscious intention of helping another. But in the biological sense there is no such requirement. Indeed, some of the most interesting examples of biological altruism are found among creatures that are (presumably) not capable of conscious thought at all, e.g. insects. For the biologist, it is the consequences of an action for reproductive fitness that determine whether the action counts as altruistic, not the intentions, if any, with which the action is performed.” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological/, 2009) In brief, women who donate their eggs feel biologically inclined to advance the species by donating the very essence of reproduction. They also have the emotional, conscious intent to provide the maternal instinct for another female, which at no point would advance their particular fitness or progeny. Thus, egg donors are fulfilling not only the biological but also the emotional, conscious definition of altruistic behavior. Make that two points for the egg donor.

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