In response to the idea of knowledge animals, many tell me that knowledge sharing is an example of altruistic behaviour. Therefore knowledge sharing could not be explained well by the selfishness and drive to survive of knowledge animals. But is knowledge sharing altruistic? And can knowledge sharing not also be explained by selfishness and drive to survive?
Altruistic behaviour helps others and is harmful for yourself (compare with so-called ‘courteous behaviour’ helps others and has no effect on yourself; see also Desmond Morris, 1978). Quite some times knowledge sharing helps others and also helps yourself: I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you’ll-scratch-mine (see also Desmond Morris, 1978). We make knowledge deals, knowledge transactions. Many times the reward is delayed and many times the reward may be abstract/symbolic. So it is about anticipation of social rewards (like status) or intellectual rewards instead of direct getting money or food. As Desmond Morris (1978), in his intriguing Manwatching, puts it “Anticipation of a delayed reward of this kind is often the hidden motive for a great deal of what is claimed to be purely altruistic behaviour” (p. 155).
But why then do we take the risk of this delayed symbolic reward and help others with giving away knowledge? Our selfishness and our drive to survive is not personal but genetic, and we are naturally inclined to helps others of our species or tribe to survive. And human animals have the capacity to abstract and see others as part of their tribe. As Desmond Morris (1978) says “The process of symbolizing, of seeing one thing as a metaphorical equivalent of another, is a powerful tendency of the human animal and it accounts for a great deal of the spread of helpfulness across the human environment”(p. 154).
To conclude, knowledge sharing (e.g. by top experts in organisations) is not necessarily altruistic. It can also be explained by selfishness and drive to survive (e.g. of the organisation the top expert is part of) in combination with man’s ability to symbolize, and by anticipation of delayed rewards. Of course, this does not make knowledge sharing any less valuable or laudable, it merely gives another explanation of the motives involved.