Is Altruism Batty?

This creature is perhaps an unlikely representative of altruism:

The nightmarish vampire bat might not seem like a team player, given that it’s a parasite and all, but in fact it demonstrates some pretty advanced social intelligence. It’s in the best interest of a small animal like the bat to maintain a healthy and large community, and vampire bats, as it turns out, are capable of reciprocal altruism–basically, doing favors. Research by Gerald Wilkinson showed that bats share food (fine, they regurgitate blood. Happy?) with bats who are hungry, regardless of whether the hungry bats are close relatives. In fact, writes Boysen, “the bats seemed to keep track of who had shared with them in the past, and they were much more likely to reciprocate with those who had been generous to them on a previous occasion.”

The gallery in this PopSci website is called “10 animals that are smarter than you think” and is interesting, despite leaving out octopuses (which is correct, I suppose, as I think that they are very smart).

The vampire bat is described as demonstrating “advanced social intelligence” and “reciprocal altruism.”  But is it truly altruism, or is it more likely a wise investment for self-preservation?  The researcher quoted in the caption notes “the bats seemed to keep track of who had shared with them in the past, and they were much more likely to reciprocate with those who had been generous to them on a previous occasion.”  They would give blood to other bats, independent of whether those bats were related, with an eye toward getting the favor back in the future. And ones who had been generous would be rewarded with a meal instead of relatives, which means the vampire bat version of “blood is thicker than water” needs a number of adjustments.

So, then, would “altruism” — what these creatures do is described as “reciprocal altruism” which might be a bit closer to “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” from a larger and genetically closer fellow mammal. This isn’t a bad thing, of course, but it seems to me to be a mis-use of the word “altruism” if the bat discriminates who it helps based on an expectation of, or reward for, returned favors.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle