Spider Altruism

In last week’s podcast, I talk with renowned biologist E.O. Wilson about spite. Although Wilson doesn’t like the term “spite,” he does tell us that there are copious examples of perplexingly self-destructive behavior in nature. Some types of ants, termites, and even bacteria can build up poison within their bodies and then explode in enemy territory – killing themselves as well as several attackers.

Wilson also mentions an act of self-sacrifice that might be better thought of as altruism: a certain species of mother spider lets her children eat her. Isabella Rossellini’s brand new video series Mammas features an episode on this cannibal spider. You can watch it here.


Most of this is easily explained. It's just selection working at the species level, rather than the individual. As for instance honeybees, in which a worker bee dies when it stings something. But the workers don't reproduce (only the queen does), so the deaths of workers is irrelevant to the hive's survival.


Could this be a perfect example of spite: Chinese man pays men to wreck his own Maserati outside a car show in protest against poor service from the dealer.


Shane L

Wow! Very cool stuff, although surely not perplexing. If we are just vectors for our parents' genes then the important thing is not that we succeed as individuals, but that our PARENTS' genes succeed. A parent could produce a group of sexless or "suicidal" offspring incapable of reproduction in order to protect and serve the sexed and reproductive offspring they also produce.

I imagine this is why we have examples of people willing to die to protect not only their children, but even their siblings or parents. The important thing is not that the individual survives or even that the individual's children survive, but that the individual's parents' genes get passed on, one way or another.


One of Webster's definitions of "altruism": "behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species". This is not human "unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others."