09. Empress of Mars (Altruism on Earth)

I love peace. So I was glad to see the Ice Warriors and humans eventually put their weapons down and find a sort of truce. Admittedly, quite a few Brits were smooshed into unfortunate cubes before they reached that truce, but hey, we got there in the end. And the Doctor was back to his proper Doctor-y self, so I’ll forgive him for his transgressions in the last episode. Especially since we have so little time left together. Waaaahh I’m not ready!

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The Doctor and Friday (image source)

This was an example of cooperation between Martians and humans, two different species, alien to one another (well, technically three species, counting the time lord. And then there’s Nardole. Never mind). I’ve always been fascinated by real life stories of different species getting along, helping each other out, showing kindness and compassion towards one another.

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What, you mean he [Neil Armstrong] wasn’t the first man on the moon? (image source)

Altruism on Earth

In evolutionary biology, the term that most closely matches kindness is altruism. An organism can be described as behaving altruistically “when its behaviour benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself.” There are a number of non-human examples: meerkats standing guard on the lookout for predators, wolves bring meat back to the pack, walruses will adopt orphans. Altruistic behaviors may seem to contradict evolutionary theories like “survival of the fittest” (natural selection) or the selfish gene.  However, as Darwin himself wrote in The Descent of Man (1871):

Besides love and sympathy, animals exhibit other qualities connected with the social instincts, which in us would be called moral.”

A specific type of altruism is “reciprocal altruism”( i.e. cooperation). Reciprocal altruism includes the expectation that the other organism will act in a similar manner at a later time. One amazing example is seen in vampire bats. These bats feed only on blood and will die if they go more than 70 hours without feeding. It’s common for bats to share food (a more pleasant way to say regurgitate blood) with their neighbors who haven’t eaten. Interestingly, food sharing among bats was predicted by reciprocal help more so than relatedness. In other words, they use the buddy system.

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Bats are cute AND kind to each other! (image source)

Another example of reciprocity is the “flying V” seen in many birds. The Northern bald ibis flies in this pattern and will take turns, precisely matching their time spent in the advantageous trailing position and in the disadvantageous front position.

I’ve also found some great stories of animals showing altruism to other species. One of my favorites is that of Kuni the bonobo and a starling. Kuni lives at Twycross Zoo in England. One day a starling flew into a clear glass pane inside Kuni’s enclosure. The bird fell to the ground, injured and dazed, sparking the interest of the bonobo. A scientist observed Kuni’s numerous attempts to encourage the bird to fly, gently opening the bird’s wings and tossing it into the air. When the bird was unsuccessful, Kuni stood guard until it was able to fly away on its own.

When talking about altruism across species, I have to talk about dolphins. There are many documented accounts of dolphins helping others. Here are a few:

  • A dolphin named Moko guided two sperm whales beached on a sandbar swim back to sea
  • A pod of dolphins protected a surfer who was bitten by a great white shark, allowing him to make it to shore and likely saving his life
  • Three dolphins helped a seal pup stuck in a strong current near shore make its way back to deeper water

These dolphin tales remind me of another beautiful and benevolent (albeit fictional) creature: the Star Whale!

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The Star Whale, an incredible example of altruism (image source)

In “The Beast Below” Eleven and Amy arrive on the Starship UK, which is transporting the human population away from Earth due to the death of the sun. The ship is riding on top of an ancient creature that is being continuously tortured by the government. Amy makes the choice to free the Star Whale; when relieved of it’s pain, the Star Whale continues to carry the humans and actually speeds up its pace. That’s some serious altruism.

DOCTOR: Amy, you could have killed everyone on this ship.

AMY: You could have killed a Star Whale.

DOCTOR: And you saved it. I know, I know.

AMY: Amazing though, don’t you think? The Star Whale. All that pain and misery and loneliness, and it just made it kind.

DOCTOR: But you couldn’t have known how it would react.

AMY: You couldn’t. But I’ve seen it before. Very old and very kind, and the very, very last. Sound a bit familiar?

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