Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Positive View of Being Human

It is refreshing when science gives us a new positive self image. Here is one from biology as reported by Nicholas Wade in an article in the NY Times:
What is the essence of human nature? Flawed, say many theologians. Vicious and addicted to warfare, wrote Hobbes. Selfish and in need of considerable improvement, think many parents.

But biologists are beginning to form a generally sunnier view of humankind. Their conclusions are derived in part from testing very young children, and partly from comparing human children with those of chimpanzees, hoping that the differences will point to what is distinctively human.

The somewhat surprising answer at which some biologists have arrived is that babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help.


But Dr. Tomasello finds the helping is not enhanced by rewards, suggesting that it is not influenced by training. It seems to occur across cultures that have different timetables for teaching social rules. And helping behavior can even be seen in infant chimpanzees under the right experimental conditions. For all these reasons, Dr. Tomasello concludes that helping is a natural inclination, not something imposed by parents or culture.


For parents who may think their children somehow skipped the cooperative phase, Dr. Tomasello offers the reassuring advice that children are often more cooperative outside the home, which is why parents may be surprised to hear from a teacher or coach how nice their child is. “In families, the competitive element is in ascendancy,” he said.

As children grow older, they become more selective in their helpfulness. Starting around age 3, they will share more generously with a child who was previously nice to them. Another behavior that emerges at the same age is a sense of social norms. “Most social norms are about being nice to other people,” Dr. Tomasello said in an interview, “so children learn social norms because they want to be part of the group.”


Shared intentionality, in Dr. Tomasello’s view, is close to the essence of what distinguishes people from chimpanzees. A group of human children will use all kinds of words and gestures to form goals and coordinate activities, but young chimps seem to have little interest in what may be their companions’ minds.


“Children are altruistic by nature,” he writes, and though they are also naturally selfish, all parents need do is try to tip the balance toward social behavior.

The shared intentionality lies at the basis of human society, Dr. Tomasello argues. From it flow ideas of norms, of punishing those who violate the norms and of shame and guilt for punishing oneself. Shared intentionality evolved very early in the human lineage, he believes, and its probable purpose was for cooperation in gathering food. Anthropologists report that when men cooperate in hunting, they can take down large game, which single hunters generally cannot do. Chimpanzees gather to hunt colobus monkeys, but Dr. Tomasello argues this is far less of a cooperative endeavor because the participants act on an ad hoc basis and do not really share their catch.

An interesting bodily reflection of humans’ shared intentionality is the sclera, or whites, of the eyes. All 200 or so species of primates have dark eyes and a barely visible sclera. All, that is, except humans, whose sclera is three times as large, a feature that makes it much easier to follow the direction of someone else’s gaze. Chimps will follow a person’s gaze, but by looking at his head, even if his eyes are closed. Babies follow a person’s eyes, even if the experimenter keeps his head still.

Advertising what one is looking at could be a risk. Dr. Tomasello argues that the behavior evolved “in cooperative social groups in which monitoring one another’s focus was to everyone’s benefit in completing joint tasks.”

This could have happened at some point early in human evolution, when in order to survive, people were forced to cooperate in hunting game or gathering fruit. The path to obligatory cooperation — one that other primates did not take — led to social rules and their enforcement, to human altruism and to language.

“Humans putting their heads together in shared cooperative activities are thus the originators of human culture,” Dr. Tomasello writes.


The basic sociability of human nature does not mean, of course, that people are nice to each other all the time. Social structure requires that things be done to maintain it, some of which involve negative attitudes toward others. The instinct for enforcing norms is powerful, as is the instinct for fairness. Experiments have shown that people will reject unfair distributions of money even it means they receive nothing.

“Humans clearly evolved the ability to detect inequities, control immediate desires, foresee the virtues of norm following and gain the personal, emotional rewards that come from seeing another punished,” write three Harvard biologists, Marc Hauser, Katherine McAuliffe and Peter R. Blake, in reviewing their experiments with tamarin monkeys and young children.
Humans life and die by their stories. Even if this science fails the final test and is not true, this is a story I want to cling to. This is a vision that makes being human a more wonderful thing. This is an ethic that can help lift us up.

I was raised in an era of moral relativism, of cynicism, of liberatarian "everybody is out for #1 and to heck with everybody else". I've watched the society around me lose its optimism and dynamic. I've seen cynical politicians and greedy "businessmen" elbow their way to the top while naive idealism has been ground into the dust. I'm tired of it. I want a more refreshing story to life up my hopes for the future.

I think science is making wonderful strides in understanding what makes us human, especially the moral side of human society. This is something that has become trapped in hidebound and dogmatic religious hands far too long. We need a new religious awakening, but this time under the aegis of science, not the dogmatists of traditional religion.

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