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Reconstructing nursing altruism using a biological evolutionary framework


  • Carol A. Haigh

    1. Carol A. Haigh PhD RN Professor of Nursing School of Nursing, Faculty of Health, Psychology and Social Care, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK
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haigh c.a. (2010) Reconstructing nursing altruism using a biological evolutionary framework. Journal of Advanced Nursing66(6), 1401–1408.


Title. Reconstructing nursing altruism using a biological evolutionary framework.

Aim.  This paper presents a discussion of the role of altruism in development of the discipline of nursing and an exploration of how nursing altruism compares with current thinking in biological evolutionary theory. There is an assumption that the role of the nurse has its foundations in altruistic behaviours; however, the source of this altruism is never analysed or debated.

Data sources.  A search of the biological altruism, altruism and health-related literature encompassing the years 1975–2007 was performed using Google Scholar.

Discussion.  The first element of the study is a brief overview of nursing altruism as a way of establishing the conceptual boundaries. Additionally, the major tenets of biological evolution are explored to clarify the theoretical underpinnings of the hypotheses presented. A key premise of this study is that nursing altruism is not solely a manifestation of disinterested sacrifice for the benefit of others, but is more concerned with ensuring the survival of a clearly defined social group.

Implications for nursing.  A re-evaluation of altruism as a motivating factor in nursing and as an element of the therapeutic relationship is long overdue. It is time that the nursing profession examined professional driving forces using more than traditional philosophical frameworks.

Conclusion.  Nursing altruism is programmed to ensure the survival of the meme rather than to act in the best interest of patients. Certainly patients reap the benefits of this selfish altruism, but that can be argued to be a side effect rather than a result.