Glimmer of the Week: Born to Help?

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 1.08.18 PMSome biologists think humans might be hard wired to help others. They’re taking some of their cues from babies. I love this.

Researchers have found that one-year-olds will point to an object that an adult pretends to have misplaced. At eighteen months, toddlers will assist a person they don’t know by opening a door or picking up something they’ve dropped.

Scientists think such helpfulness might be innate because it happens before parents start teaching children to be polite.

“It’s probably safe to assume that [babies] haven’t been explicitly and directly taught to do this,” Harvard developmental psychologist Elizabeth Spelke told The New York Times.  “On the other hand, they’ve had lots of opportunities to experience acts of helping by others. I think the jury is out on the innateness question.”

Fellow developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello, however, has observed that helpful behavior cuts across all cultures, supporting the evidence that it’s intrinsic. “Children are naturally altruistic,” he writes in his new book Why We Cooperate.

Although Tomasello acknowledges that humans are naturally selfish, too, he describes a phenomenon called “shared intentionality” that may lie at the root of human behavior—particularly when cooperation was necessary for survival in hunter gatherer societies. This sense of “we” helps give social groups cohesion.

Our eyes may tell a similar story. Humans are the only primates with large, prominent sclera (the whites of the eye). This makes it easy to follow another person’s eyes. While chimps, our closest relatives, follow the movement of another’s head, babies follow the movement of another’s persons gaze, even if the person keeps her head still.  Tomasello observes that the ability to follow another’s gaze may have been key to cooperating on tasks.

Tomasello isn’t alone in his ideas that helpfulness may be biologically programmed, according to the New York Times, which also describes the work of Dr. Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. “I’d argue that biology constitutes our greatest hope,” de Waal writes. “One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”

Sure, humans can also be selfish and mean, but it seems that altruism, empathy and cooperation are woven into our very nature. I wonder what would happen if we more fully appreciated and developed these qualities in ourselves, our children and our society?

Posted in Blog.