First, let's be clear what we're talking about. By altruism I do not mean the "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" kind of behavior that practices benevolence to others in direct expectation of reciprocal benefits. Altruism is more interesting: the truly selfless giving of oneself to others with absolutely no secondary motives. When we see that kind of love and generosity, we are overcome with awe and reverence. Oskar Schindler placed his life in great danger by sheltering more than a thousand Jews from Nazi extermination during World War II, and ultimately died penniless -- and we feel a great rush of admiration for his actions. Mother Teresa has consistently ranked as one of the most admired individuals of the current age, though her self-imposed poverty and selfless giving to the sick and dying of Calcutta is in drastic contrast to the materialistic lifestyle that dominates our current culture.
In some instances, altruism can extend even to circumstances where the beneficiary would seem to be a sworn enemy. Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, tells the following Sufi story.
Once upon a time there was an old woman who used to meditate on the bank of the Ganges. One morning, finishing her meditation, she saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the strong current. As the scorpion was pulled closer, it got caught in roots that branched out far into the river. The scorpion struggled frantically to free itself but got more and more entangled. She immediately reached out to the drowning scorpion, which, as soon as she touched it, stung her. The old woman withdrew her hand but, having regained her balance, once again tried to save the creature. Every time she tried, however, the scorpion's tail stung her so badly that her hands became bloody and her face distorted with pain. A passerby who saw the old woman struggling with the scorpion shouted, "What's wrong with you, fool! Do you want to kill yourself to save that ugly thing?" Looking into the stranger's eyes, she answered, "Because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I deny my own nature to save it?"
This may seem a rather drastic example -- not very many of us can relate to putting ourselves in danger to save a scorpion. But surely most of us have at one time felt the inner calling to help a stranger in need, even with no likelihood of personal benefit. And if we have actually acted on that impulse, the consequence was often a warm sense of "having done the right thing."
C. S. Lewis, in his remarkable book "The Four Loves," further explores the nature of this kind of selfless love, which he calls "agape" (pronounced ah-GAH-pay), from the Greek. He points out that this kind of love can be distinguished from the three other forms (affection, friendship, and romantic love), which can be more easily understood in terms of reciprocal benefit, and which we can see modeled in other animals besides ourselves. Agape, or selfless altruism, presents a major challenge for the evolutionist. It is quite frankly a scandal to reductionist reasoning.