*New York Times* (Tuesday, Dec 1) includes an article: “We
May Be Born With an Urge to Help” by Nicholas Wade.

Here are some excerpts:

[begin excerpts]

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.


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.

When infants 18 months old see an unrelated adult whose hands are full
and who needs assistance opening a door or picking up a dropped
clothespin, they will immediately help, Michael Tomasello writes in “Why
We Cooperate,” a book published in October.

Dr. Tomasello, a developmental psychologist, is co-director of the Max
Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

The helping behavior seems to be innate because it appears so early and
before many parents start teaching children the rules of polite behavior.

“It’s probably safe to assume that they haven’t been explicitly and
directly taught to do this,” said Elizabeth Spelke, a developmental
psychologist at Harvard.

“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.”

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.

Infants will help with information, as well as in practical ways.

From the age of 12 months they will point at objects that an adult
pretends to have lost.


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.”

Children not only feel they should obey these rules themselves, but also
that they should make others in the group do the same.

Even 3-year-olds are willing to enforce social norms.

If they are shown how to play a game, and a puppet then joins in with
its own idea of the rules, the children will object, some of them

Where do they get this idea of group rules, the sense of “we who do it
this way”?

Dr. Tomasello believes children develop what he calls “shared
intentionality,” a notion of what others expect to happen and hence a
sense of a group “we.”

It is from this shared intentionality that children derive their sense
of norms and of expecting others to obey them.


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

A similar conclusion has been reached independently by Hillard S.
Kaplan, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico.

Modern humans have lived for most of their existence as hunter
gatherers, so much of human nature has presumably been shaped for
survival in such conditions.

From study of existing hunter gatherer peoples, Dr. Kaplan has found
evidence of cooperation woven into many levels of human activity.

The division of labor between men and women — men gather 68 percent of
the calories in foraging societies — requires cooperation between the sexes.

Young people in these societies consume more than they produce until age
20, which in turn requires cooperation between the generations.

This long period of dependency was needed to develop the special skills
required for the hunter gatherer way of life.


Much the same conclusion is reached by Frans de Waal in another book
published in October, “The Age of Empathy.”

Dr. de Waal, a primatologist, has long studied the cooperative side of
primate behavior and believes that aggression, which he has also
studied, is often overrated as a human motivation.

“We’re preprogrammed to reach out,” Dr. de Waal writes.

“Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.”

The only people emotionally immune to another’s situation, he notes, are


The roots of human cooperation may lie in human aggression.

We are selfish by nature, yet also follow rules requiring us to be nice
to others.

“That’s why we have moral dilemmas,” Dr. Tomasello said, “because we are
both selfish and altruistic at the same time.”

[end excerpts]

The article is online at:

Clipping courtesy of Ken Pope