Journal Club

Highlighting recent, timely papers selected by Academy member labs

Could expanding social webs help humans cooperate altruistically on a global scale?

The worst circumstances can bring out the best in people: environmental crises may be inspiring global altruism and sustainable action, a recent perspective argues. Image credit: Shutterstock/ oneinchpunch

Researchers argue that today’s environmental crises can inspire global altruism. Image credit: Shutterstock/oneinchpunch.

Celebrities and social media influencers are reaching global audiences on unprecedented scales. Such audiences are already forming cooperative groups that could one day tackle complex problems such as climate change, argues a recent perspective published in One Earth. Drawing on social science literature exploring how and why humans engage in altruism and how cooperative social norms change during times of crisis, the authors suggest one promising outcome: Young, hyperconnected role models could compel their fans to take on truly global and altruistic attitudes—for example, donating their time, skills, and resources for the greater good.

The authors argue that norms around selfless cooperation can increase during crises. They point to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, and suggest that voluntary self-isolation is one example of an empathetic action arising to protect vulnerable groups, sparked by dire circumstances. Past disasters, from Chernobyl to the atomic bombings in Japan during World War II, have similarly driven new empathetic norms among survivors, the authors point out. They go on to suggest that greater recognition of ongoing environmental crises, through social networks for example, could similarly drive changes in social norms that would benefit people, ecosystems, and the planet.

Faced with environmental crises including climate change and biodiversity loss, “everything has to change,” from the way that policies are made to how business operates, opines coauthor Henrik Österblom, a sustainability scientist at the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden. “We have to take the entire planet into consideration somehow,” he says. That likely means expanding the scope of what most people consider their social group to establish norms of acceptable behavior as one global community.

In 2018, when Österblom began working on this project, he was inspired by the generosity of celebrities and YouTube stars that his teenage son followed online. The rapper Drake, for instance, released a 2018 music video for his song “God’s Plan,” in which the musician gave away $1 million in cash, giant checks, and shopping sprees around the Miami area. That video has now been viewed more than 1.3 billion times. While cash gifts for Miami residents may not solve today’s environmental crises, they do communicate an attitude of selflessness and generosity to a global audience, Österblom says. Videos like Drake’s planted a seed for Österblom leading to this perspective in collaboration with coauthor Øyvind Paasche: Perhaps people are already becoming more collaborative or altruistic at a global level, even as environmental crises intensify.

These questions—whether global-scale altruism is possible and under what conditions—are no doubt intriguing, notes environmental governance postdoc Manjana Milkoreit at the University of Oslo, in Norway. But without evidence for the motivations underlying influencers’ seemingly selfless acts, especially data on the cognitive processes driving their generosity, Milkoreit says she remains “unconvinced” that Earth altruism for sustainability already exists at the global scale, or could drive future systemic change. She would need to see empirical studies exploring the motivations of people engaged in seemingly selfless behaviors, specifically behaviors contributing to sustainability at large scales, she says. Milkoreit would also like to see researchers explore whether and how this altruism spreads through social networks and whether it creates change.

The literature does support vast increases in the scale of human cooperation over the last 10,000 years, notes evolutionary anthropologist Rob Boyd, at Arizona State University in Tempe. Past hunter-gatherers typically lived in groups of 20 to 30 people and banded together in regional coalitions of 500 to 2,000 individuals, he says. Clearly, the scale of many societies today is much larger, and the fact that human social circles have expanded before suggests they might be able to do it again, says Boyd, who’s an expert in cultural evolution and evolutionary psychology. But, he adds, making any sort of firm conclusion remains challenging since researchers don’t really “understand the science very well” when it comes to explicating exactly how the scale of human cooperation expanded.

Österblom sees avenues for collecting data to explore his hypotheses, including tracking the growth of influencer networks over time. And in particular, he wonders if followers are mimicking the generous behavior of their influencer role models—and whether chain reactions of altruistic behavior are spreading as a result. One kind of chain reaction, he says, is when one influencer references another. For example the YouTube star MrBeast, who has more than 73 million subscribers, used Drake’s “God’s Plan” in a spring 2018 video in which MrBeast gave away $500,000. Qualitative interviews with influencers and analyses of the connections and overlap among their fan bases could also help track where chain reactions start. Ultimately, governments must do the lion’s share of the work to clean up the environment, Österblom acknowledges. But by organizing, social groups could push policymakers to take greater responsibility.

Other recent papers recommended by Journal Club panelists:

Hybridization enables the fixation of selfish queen genotypes in eusocial colonies

Recruitment of CTCF to an Fto enhancer is responsible for transgenerational inheritance of obesity

USP7 and VCP FAF1 define the SUMO/Ubiquitin landscape at the DNA replication fork

Evidence for European presence in the Americas in AD 1021

Cardiac proteomics reveals sex chromosome-dependent differences between males and females that arise prior to gonad formation

Estimating origination times from the early hominin fossil record

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