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Cyborgs and Altruism

V.R. Manoj

Ethical Technology

May 17, 2007

Cyborgs are often imagined as devoid of emotion and empathy. We need a new understanding of the cyborg, one with the capacity for altruism and love.


Altruism is the act of selflessly helping another person. Altruism in general, refers to the act of helping another organism at time of need even if the helper himself/herself is placed in danger. The word “altruism” comes from the Italian adjective “altrui”. Auguste Comte first used the term in 1851 to denote the benevolent1. As such it defines a conduct by which only actions that impart happiness to others, and hence possess a moral value. In Comte’s system, not only is the happiness to be found in living for others the supreme end of conduct; but also a disinterested devotion to humanity as a whole is the highest form of religious service. Comte’s concept of altruism was translated into English by George H. Lewis in 1853 in the book “Comte’s Philosophy of the Sciences”3.

Apart from viewing altruism from a theological perspective, it can also observed as a prevalent biological phenomenon in nature. This field termed as the biological altruism is a part of evolutionary biology. It refers to an action of an organism, which benefits another organism at a cost to itself. Biological altruism is also connected with reproductive fitness that determines whether the action counts as altruistic22. It is defined in terms of fitness consequences, not motivating intentions. Biological altruism is defended by the following two theoretical models; a. Kin selection b. Reciprocal Altruism.

This viewpoint of altruism was proposed by Haldane and later made explicit by Hamilton (1964). Hamilton devised a rule, which states that the gene for altruism can spread by natural selection, so long as the cost incurred by the altruist is offset by a sufficient amount of benefit to sufficiently closely related relatives. “Hamilton’s rule” can be mathematically represented as b > c/r, where c is the cost incurred by the altruist (the donor), b is the benefit received by the recipients of the altruism, and r is the co-efficient of relationship between donor and recipient. “Kin selection theory” predicts that animals are more likely to behave altruistically towards their relatives than towards unrelated members of their species.

Principally, a gene wants to maximize the number of copies of itself and transfer them to the next generation. One way of doing this is to cause its host organism to behave altruistically towards other bearers of the gene, so long as the costs and benefits satisfy the Hamilton inequality. In order to explain his theory from the organism’s point of view, Hamilton devised the “Inclusive fitness theory”. An organism’s inclusive fitness is defined as its personal fitness, plus the sum of it’s weighted effects on the fitness of every other organism in the population, the weights determined by the co-efficient of relationship.


The theory of reciprocal altruism was developed by Trivers (1971). In this form of altruism, it may benefit an animal to behave altruistically towards another, if there is an expectation of the favour being returned in the future. For reciprocal altruism to work, there is no need for the two individuals to be relatives, not even to be members of the same species. So long as organisms interact with each other on multiple occasions and are capable of adjusting their behaviour depending on what other organisms have done in the past, reciprocal altruism can in principle evolve13. A popular example of this form of altruism in nature is in the blood sharing among vampire bats explained in a study conducted by Wilkinson (1984). Usually, vampire bats will starve if they do not have a blood meal within the last 48 hours. Therefore, on any given night, bats donate blood (by regurgitation) to other members of the group who have failed to feed, thus saving them from starvation. This is believed to be done with the expectation that the favour will be returned. The reciprocal altruistic theory is used to explain in instances, which cannot be explained by Kin selection theory.


Human altruism is unique in many aspects. Most biological theories proposed on altruism fail to fully explain the altruistic qualities exhibited by humans. Some human behaviour can find no satisfactory accommodation into any of the altruistic theories proposed so far. Examples of such human behaviours include voluntary celibacy. Monastic orders of benevolence, and vows of ascetic poverty, religious martyrdom, or life-threatening efforts of holocaust rescuers. Human behaviour displays unusually widespread non-conformity, so characteristic aspects of the human behavioural repertoire actually float free from the influence of natural selection19. Experimental studies have been conducted by Fehr et al7 to explain the nature of human altruism. Their studies have revealed that purely genetic group selection like the gene based approaches of reciprocal altruism and indirect reciprocity is unlikely to provide a satisfactory explanation for strong reciprocity and large-scale co-operation among humans7.

What this means is that the evolutionary theories of altruism such as reciprocal altruism, kin selection, “selfish-gene” are incapable of fully explaining the apparent instances of human behaviour, which cannot be classified as an adaptive response. Therefore, such forms of altruistic behaviour have been credited as different forms of “pure altruism”. However, this “pure” form of altruism seen in human beings seriously challenges Darwin’s theory. His theory supports the idea that each organism would care to preserve only it’s own genetic material and would not risk losing it by helping another. It is evolutionarily inconceivable that human beings can sacrifice “exclusively for another”. As it now stands, evolutionary theory insists that such radical human behaviour (humanity, human morality) must be somehow manipulatively designed not for altruism but for keeping “the human genetic material intact”. Therefore, human altruism clearly distinguishes itself from evolutionary explanations of altruism or biological forms of altruism.

It can be widely held to believe that Homo sapiens can evolve to become a superior being and hope to transcend the limitations of the current biological body. One of such possibilities is to become a cyborg. However, the basic human nature to love, share and provide for it’s own and other kinds of life which is defined by words such as altruism, which shall indeed be preserved by cyborgs inspite of words such as altruism, which shall indeed be preserved by cyborgs inspite of logical philosophical projections to the contrary. This is because these qualities have a much deeper meaning to human lives than just metaphorical linguistic meanings. However, it is first important to understand the concept of cyborg.


A “Cyborg” means a human being who is technologically complimented by external or internal devices that compliment or regulate various human body functions. In other words a cyborg organism is constituted by part-machine-part-human systems11. Manfred clynes and Nathan Kline initially coined the word “cyborg” in 1980 to describe how the human body could be integrated with autonomous machines in order to survive in extreme outer space conditions4. Current advances in bionics, nanotechnology have made the distant fantasy of technologically enmeshed human beings a foreseeable reality. Apart from being a concept for physically challenged individuals, the word “cyborg” or cyborgization which refers to the process of making a cyborg, has now become synonymous with radical theories of transhumanism, extropianism, post-humanism, etc. It is now held widely, by such groups, that the future shall comprise of human beings who have modified their bodies to live longer and more efficient lives by overcoming the limitations of the gross physical body. The views have been escalated to a level where it is expected that digital cyborgs would be able to upload and download their consciousness at will15. Some have the opinion that we are already cyborgized in certain aspects. Gray (2002) notes

“Signs of our cyborg society are all around. The few of us who are not in some way already borged through immunizations, interfaces, or prosthetics are embedded nonetheless in countless machinic/organic cybernetic systems. From the moment your clock radio wakes you in the morning, your life is infinitely shaped by machines. Some of them we merge with almost unconsciously, such as the car we drive, the computer we work with, or the television we zone out in front of. Others involve more conscious interfacing. Overall the effect is an extraordinary symbiosis of humans and machines”.

Apart from the futuristic physical viewpoint of cyborgs, Cavallaro5 states that the following points should be considered as ideological, psychological and physiological attributes of cyborgs: “1. The cyborg is both a creature of myth and a creature of social reality; 2. The cyborg incarnates conflicting visions of power and powerlessness; 3. The cyborg embodies cultural fears and anxieties”.

Since our body is the most personal entity we can relate to, the cyborg hypothesis works well because it literally refers to a direct change to our normal physical selves. What the cyborg offers us is not only a way of predicting our physical integration with the technological, but it tells us how we are likely to behave in an enhanced state of existence. All of our fears and insecurities about futuristic technology are addressed directly by the cyborg. If indeed we do become cyborgs, we must first understand why we would become cyborgs and second, we must analyze and reflect our present values onto the cyborg image. The most important things we would be considering in the cyborg scenario are as to where the human body ends and the machine body begins. How human will we be as cyborgs? This question is amplified by modern science fiction moves on cyborgs such as ROBOCOP16.

It is a well-known fact that science is progressing steadily. There is a fear that the accelerated influx of technological advancement into human life would desensitise it from long held views of morality. It is feared that the human race will become open minded to most of the things we consider inhuman today. On the other hand, it is also held that rapid unhindered progress in science would in fact enhance human life. Therefore, in this view, it is believed that greater scientific knowledge can make man more sensitive to others and to the environment around him. This view suggests that human beings would be more altruistic in future. One should be concerned about the state of affairs in the future because the present trend of human behaviour and resultant actions can be extrapolated into the future status of the same i.e. the future is constructed on the actions of the present era.


It is important to note the importance of altruism being represented as one of the human traits. For example, in the case of composition of interstellar messages in search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, we would place altruism as a hallmark of human nature. It would take several generations before an alien intelligence shall receive such transmitted interstellar messages. It would take even longer for them to respond to us across space. Therefore, it is important to calculate whether our projected qualities such as altruism still hold true I the future when contact is made. Will a technologically superior human being o the future be altruistic?

The current limitations of the biological body shall be overcome in the future by rapid advances in genetic engineering, nanobots, cyborgization, etc. We will live longer; have disease resistant healthy bodies with a superior controlled intellect to accompany it. In this paper, it is proposed that the human being of the future shall be a superman of sorts; or in other words a CYBORG, who will be a perfect mesh of technology and biological components. I would also like to propose that the current H.sapiens would be so different that we would probably classify our future selves as a Cybor sapiens or Homo cyborgus. There are several such possibilities and in this paper, I have put my focus on the cyborg outcome.

The cyborg of the future is more than just a cultural expression of a fantasy future. It could very well become a serious reality. Cyborgologists term it as becoming posthuman. As posthumans, cyborgs shall distinctly influence society. In order to explain my stand that altruism shall be preserved inspite of such radical changes, I am proposing two possible outcomes; altruism shall still be a required trait. The first outcome shall be termed, as “logical cyborg” and the second outcome shall be “human-centric cyborg”.


I am taking the position that a “LOGICAL CYBORG” is the posthuman who will view life with a strict mechanical approach where there is no room for emotional sensitivity. In other words, this type of cyborg shall use a mechanical calculative approach to evaluate the qualities necessary to lead life. There will be no room for theology or philosophical dialogue in this cyborg. They will exist solely for the purpose of existence and preservation of their consciousness. Now, it would seem highly unlikely that such a posthuman would even consider altruism as a favourable trait to preserve as part of it’s behavioural nature. But I argue that this may not be entirely true. As long as humans, in whatever form interact with one another for any given purpose, altruism is the most logically satisfactory quality that serves as the medium for such an interaction. Earlier in the paper, different scientific theories of altruistic behaviour patterns were described such as “kin selection” and “reciprocal selection”. These practices are logically effective means to ensure the continuous survival of the gene.

In the future, if consciousness is uploaded or downloaded into cybernetic organisms, it would still require support from cyborgs from other regions for it’s existence. This dependency would have to be based on the theories of reciprocity or kin selection. Therefore, although there may be no room for an emotional form of altruism, it will continue to exist in principle. There is experimental evidence indicating that repeated interactions, reputation formation and strong reciprocity are powerful determinants of human behaviour. There is every hope that networked and “jacked up”8 cyborgs of the future shall also require these qualities to survive. However, the fundamental definition of altruism may shift to fit the needs of the times.


The Human-centric cyborg shall be more emotional in nature although still enmeshed or perfectly integrated with technologically advanced cybernetic systems. Technological advancement shall bring a new curiosity into the purpose of existence. In order to understand the world better, the Human-centric cyborg shall preserve in it’s own nature, the basic human moral values. Therefore, superior technological advancement in this cyborg shall make him/her more sensitive to the intricacies of this world and other worlds, thereby generating a protective mentality towards all forms of part cultural behaviour while still embodying the full qualities of a technological advanced society. One of the most important qualities that shall be preserved is altruism. In such a society, altruism shall not only be seen as a logical necessity for survival but as a distinctive feature of human nature worthy of preservation as a whole. Such cyborgs of the future shall be altruistic by will of choice rather than by will of compulsion to survive.


It is far easier to accept that we are selfish people who do not care for the preservation of another. However, that is not entirely true because observations from a religious perspective can show the way as to co-exist with both an animalistic selfish nature and a caring altruistic nature. If one believes human beings are designed to be loving organisms, then it is reasonable to hypothesize that behaviour, which is generous towards others, might actually increase fitness. This is not because it increases social status and therefore improves access to resources but because even if resources are relinquished, it may improve utilization efficiency or result in psycho-neurological states that promote immunity, learning, vitality or other aspects of well-being9. This is a sound scientific reason, which seems enough to satisfy the eager altruist and the sceptical Darwinian.

From a spiritual perspective, the need to selfishly preserve one’s own gene can be thought of as a negative energy that separates us from our animal selves. Hedonism advocates full indulgence of one’s senses that shall clearly will take us back into our animal nature. However, if we contemplate the compulsion of self-preservation as a hurdle that we must transcend, then it is easier to understand the purpose of altruism. Every time an individual can overcome oneself to make an altruistic choice, he/she moves evolution away from it’s primeval roots and upwards the development of a world wide culture of collaboration. Theologians can sense the pull of evolution to be selfish as “temptation of sin” that one must overcome by fervent belief in a loving God who advocates altruism amongst other transcending principles. Embracing altruism offers a chance of a more meaningful, conscionable life.


What is the meaning of altruism? The true meaning goes beyond the linguistic or encyclopaedic definition. In cybofree, it has been argued that mere satisfaction of the body only instils a false sense of freedom in man. Can we survive a techno centric existence devoid of love? Such an idea of an emotionless being is impossible because we cannot exist as humans without love. If love exists, then surely altruism shall exist for all time because love is it’s fount. Human civilization has and shall always owe it’s survival and prosperity on the ability to love and serve each other. Sri Aurobindo20 has given the vision that the man of the future shall become a full instrument of nature’s intentions. If we accept this view, then we can also accept that the possible evolution of man into a cyborg is also nature’s way of harmoniously balancing the machine world and the human world. Therefore, the cyborg or for that matter, any outcome in the future of man shall be in accordance with the wishes of nature.

It is sometimes difficult to imagine that a good outcome shall come in the future filled with caring human beings/ cyborgs. However, a practice called “Aesthetic realism” proposes a worldview approach that can help us view a different perspective. “If, as Aesthetic realism believes, all the sciences, let alone all the arts, present reality as constituted or shaped aesthetically, reality of the world can that much be liked. Aesthetic Realism does not bid people to like reality; it does bid people to hope to like reality and to do all they can to like it. A seeing of the sciences in their relation and where they begin is a means of seeing the world favourably; with order and surprise.

We may never quite understand why human altruism is so unique or as to why evolutionary theories cannot fully explain it’s complexities. But we know that a “fully rounded human being” is a combined element of “consciousness of principle, good-hearted feeling, an awareness of appearances, and a healthy prudent sense of self-interest”. Therefore, any future outcome of the human being including cyborgs shall still be and continue to be altruistic in their nature even by the time the first contact with extra-terrestrial intelligence is made.


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4. Clynes. M.E. & Kline. N.S. , 1960: “Cyborgs and space”, Astronautics, reprinted in Chris Gray Hables, Ed; The Cyborg Handbook, Routledge. 1995: 29-33.

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19. Schloss, J.P. 1998. “Of Natural Theology and Natural Theology: Evolutionary Accounts of Altruistic Morality and the Quandary of Goodness by design.” In mere creation William Dembski, editor. Intervarsity Press.

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23. Vakoch, Douglas. The view from a Distant star: Challenges of Interstellar Message-Making.

24. Vinge, Vernor What is the Singularity?

25. World Transhumanist Association

V.R. Manoj has a Ph.D in Environmental Biotechnology/Sciences from Anna University, Chennai, India. He has worked in the Renewable energy industry and currently teaches Environmental Sciences and Engineering to Engineering grad students in India. Dr. Manoj was an IEET Affiliate Scholar for 2010-2012.


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