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Not Selfish by Nature April 1, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Compelling evidence of a fundamentally less-than-totally-selfish human nature have surfaced within the last few years, for the first time providing nor just intuitive, anecdotal, logical or speculative arguments against psychological egoism, but neurological indicators that humans simply aren’t as selfish as was assumed by so many people (including some prominent philosophers) in the last few centuries. The fact that we are capable of caring about each other, capable of empathy, is fast becoming one of the human traits some thinkers focus on as an antidote to cynicism. So it is all the more fascinating to read that we have apparently had this capability for a long time: The 530,000 year old skull of a child found in Spain in 2001 has now been reconstructed, and it turns out it must have been a “special needs” child. The skull indicates a debilitating condition resulting in pressure on the brain. So half a million years ago a family/mother decided (contrary to what researchers had assumed would happen) that this child would not be killed, abandoned, or “exposed” (to the elements or wild animals) because of a disability. The child was cared for until its death between the age of 6 and 12. So what can we make out of that?

                So perhaps caring for the child made the parents feel good? Wouldn’t that be a selfish feeling, then? No. Up front, let’s dispense with the notion that if you care about someone because it makes you feel good, then you’re selfish. That is nonsense. If you were selfish, caring for someone and seeing them prosper wouldn’t make you feel good. Simple as that.

Back to the issue of compassion: For one thing, it may be questionable whether we can conclude, with the scientists, that humans in general cared for helpless individuals, based on one fossil. But fossils are rare, and we may not get any other corroborating evidence, so we have to make do with what we’ve got, and make tentative conclusions based on that.

On the other hand, it isn’t completely unheard of even among (other) primates such as the apes who at least once in a while may choose to care for a disabled infant, for a while. But what makes this child’s skull particularly interesting is that the child lived for at least 6 years, being cared for by others. And those others, like the child, weren’t yet what we today would call human—they were Homo heidelbergensis, a group not directly related to us at all, except for having common ancestors going further back, to Homo ergaster. (Some charts show us being descendants of Homo heidelbergensis, but it wouldn’t be the ones living in Spain—it would be another branch of the family still hanging out in Africa.) Homo heidelbergensis, having evolved in Africa themselves, lived in what later became Europe about 800,000 years ago, and may have been the ancestors of the Neandertals—but not us, Homo Sapiens. Our ancestors—the ancestors of all living humans, everywhere, according to the “Out of Africa” theory—didn’t leave Africa until about 100,000 years ago. So not only do we have an ancient hominid population who showed compassion for a disabled individual of their own—it was a different hominid population altogether! One that is now gone from this earth, they and their offspring. And we already have evidence of their (likely) descendants, the Neandertals, showing compassion for their disabled individuals.

                The moral of the story? The capacity for compassion among humans began before we were human. Incidentally there is one philosopher who speculated that this might be the case: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He had no idea that a theory of evolution would be proposed some 80 years after his death, but he did operate with a concept of cultural progression where humans evolve, culturally, from fundamentally good, compassionate beings to the self-centered “war-of-every-man-against-every-man” creature that Hobbes warned us lurks inside everyone of us. Another philosopher who speculated that we have an emotional caring instinct that is more fundamental than our selfishness was of course David Hume. Does that mean that all the old theories about human fundamental aggression and selfishness are completely wrong? Probably not entirely. We are still the creatures who have developed formidable weapons, and who excel in forming groups with an “us-vs.-them” mentality. But the aggressive stance toward “them” also allowed us to care for those we consider “us.” So we were probably not the aggressive, selfish, magnificent beast that fascinated some thinkers and writers. And we were probably not its counterpart, either—shy, meek little potential victims of grim predators that had to band together and care for each other. These notions have acquired political overtones over the years, and they’re both inadequate, historically and politically. My hunch is that the parents of that disabled child, probably loving their child, eons ago, were also formidable hunters with very little patience for strangers on their hunting grounds. Compassion, yes—for one’s own. Maybe not for the stranger. My guess is that’s probably a truly human Homo sapiens invention.



1. Huan - April 2, 2009

Didn’t Ayn Rand also took this type of phenomenon into consideration? I mean she’s one of the prominent egoist philosophers right? She brought up the point of if a mother values her child more than let’s say..an expensive hat, then she’d spend her money to feed her child and not buy the hat.

We don’t necessarily have to call that selfishness, but I don’t believe any particular philosopher really claimed that we are so fundamentally selfish that innate caring for other beings is some type of flaw. I think the issue that is raised by philosophers like Rand is a criticism of MANDATORY care, to conflate our natural empathy with conditioned moral duty.

If the parents didn’t really want to care for the child because they had their own problems that were very demanding, and they somehow felt morally obligated pressure to care for the child, then this would fall under the criticism of egoist philosophers. I don’t think even Nietzsche would claim that empathy is a purely social construct that ought to be eliminated, since I think it’d only apply to “obligatory empathy”.

2. Dwight Furrow - April 2, 2009


I am not an expert on Rand, but as I recall, Rand thinks of one’s individual life, personal survival, as the sole source of value. Something has value only to the extent it serve’s one’s own survival, although this is not understood subjectively. Whether something contributes to one’s life or not is an objective fact. Thus, compassion, sympathy, empathy etc. are justifiable only if in fact they contribute to one’s own survival.

She didn’t doubt that most people tended to be compassionate or sympathetic. But to the extent these emotions distract one from pursuing one’s project, these were negative influences.
You are right that this doesn’t necessarily preclude what you call natural empathy but it does treat it as an optional, instrumental good that may or may not be useful. And, on her view, it should never outweigh reason.

The research that Nina points to, it seems to me, would not be welcomed by Rand, because it tends to suggest that it is a salient fact about human existence that our survival depends on these emotions. The kind of self-reliance that Rand praised might then be inimical to our survival.

Because Rand was very much concerned that our actions be based on facts, this research would have stretched her perspective to the breaking point. It is likely that Rand thought of our evolutionary past as a “dog eat dog” world of individuals competing for scarce resources. But research over the last 20 years calls that understanding into question.

Rand is not alone. This research calls into question much of the past 400 years of political theory. Most political theories assume, at least as a methodological constraint, that agents will primarily out of self-interest unless restrained by powerful mechanisms of social control.

3. Natural Care | Rants & Reasons - April 2, 2009

[…] Nina at Philosophy on the Mesa has posted about some fascinating new evidence that empathy and compassion have roots deep in our evolutionary past. “The 530,000 year old skull of a child found in Spain in 2001 has now been reconstructed, and it turns out it must have been a “special needs” child. The skull indicates a debilitating condition resulting in pressure on the brain. So half a million years ago a family/mother decided (contrary to what researchers had assumed would happen) that this child would not be killed, abandoned, or “exposed” (to the elements or wild animals) because of a disability. The child was cared for until its death between the age of 6 and 12.” […]

4. Huan - April 3, 2009

I suppose I am basing what I’m saying on a particular interview with Rand back in the 50s. When she was asked why she loves her husband and supports him(an artist), she said something along the lines “I love him selfishly, not out of self-sacrifice.” She also said that she would gladly support his if he needed the money. (I’ll try to tackle this particular problem of self-interest somewhere below, it appears to me to be quite important.)

I’m not sure if the research actually contradicts our political/economic theory, I think the previous blog on our inability to be rational agents in the face of money is far more potent in that department.

I mean there’s been theories like the Nash Equilibrium. Though it does not explicitly take empathy into account, one could imagine that empathy as an evolutionary advantage fits quite well into the premise of the equilibrium, that in a competitive game a “stalemate” can be reached when the most beneficial outcome to the players is reached by not make a move against the other players.

Empathy itself can be seen as an evolutionary advantage for the individual, especially for creatures like humans who have closely nit social dependencies that requires this “stalemate” to be upheld in order to function properly. Empathy then becomes something that indirectly serves our self interest.

I think the biggest problem causing mass confusion with this issue is what we mean by self interest. I prefer the self interest that is based purely on emotional satisfaction, which still appears to be the fundamental motivational drive for us humans. Thus self interest should not be looked at as some kind of abstract concept where the metaphysical self gains benefits of some type, but just subjective emotional satisfaction. (In a phenomenological way if you will.) This would mean it’s not that we SHOULD act on our self interest, but that we simply DO act on our emotional satisfaction.

In other words, just because we tend to be motivated by the desire for satisfying our emotional urges, it doesn’t mean we “ought to” act solely to benefit our “metaphysical self”. At the same time just because we feel empathy, it doesn’t mean we “ought to” sacrifice ourselves for others because it’s “good”.

The whole problem appears to be that we’re conflating our emotional tendencies with moral “ought to”s, making this whole thing rather problematic. Perhaps one could argue that we “ought to” utilize our empathy more often IF we are to satisfy our emotions in more fulfilling ways, but it seems that our brains don’t tend to think of it like this at all.

I suspect the reason for this fallacy is due to the way our brains operate to enforce conditioned behavior regulation. We naturally go to “ought to”s when we are faced with conditioned moral responses, whether it’s self interest or altruism, and we even base our philosophical works on it with stretches of rational arguments.

I think I got a little off topic though. I apologize. (I also might have no idea what I am talking about, I kind of just made all that stuff up, sorry if it made no sense.)

5. Nina Rosenstand - April 3, 2009

You’re the fastest spinner on the blog…and always entertaining, sometimes brilliantly so. Read Atlas Shrugged over the Spring Break and get it out of your system! And read Rand’s “Ethics of Emergencies” from The Virtue of Selfishness, too. That’s where she argues against sacrifice and for self-interest.
BTW, the point was not (as you assume) that survival, according to ethical egoists, precludes caring for anyone. We naturally care about our offspring, and Rand would say that this is perfectly fine, because we get emotional gratification out of it. The point of the research was that care was given to a (in those days, for all intents and purposes) non-viable child, out of a surplus of care—the kind of individual that most species would, instinctively, not “waste resources on.” Compassion for an individual who can grow up and extend compassion toward you, that’s rational egoism at work. Even reciprocal altruism, provided that you really care. Compassion for someone who can’t reciprocate is something else, especially if you’re at the level of marginal existence.

6. Huan - April 3, 2009

I really should! I’ve been posting about Rand for weeks on all kinds of places without having actually read her books, going off of her interviews and John Galt’s speech on youtube. It’s a shameful way to “philosophize” really, I’m not proud of it. 😦

I apologize for the mistaken assumption, the research indeed does offer a great deal of criticism of philosophical egoism, and exposes a rather fundamental fallacy it has.

I think after my last post I’ve reached some kind of conclusion that criticizes both the egoist and the altruist, not as emotional tendencies but as philosophical/ethical standings. Simply based on the notion that we can NOT derive moral “ought to”s from our emotional capacities, whether it’s for empathetic compassion or self-serving gratification. I suppose it’s somewhat akin to morally regulating a baseball because it ought to fall onto the ground.

What does this mean for ethical theory though? Could it be that moral “ought to”s could only make sense if they make our emotional gratification more efficient or more potent? Does that make utilitarianism the ultimate moral stance? It would at the same time make sense of compassion for those who can’t reciprocate and self serving greed in the same package. Thus moral rationalization could only be applied under the premise of emotional urges.

However I don’t think this means we “Ought to” satisfy our emotions, it means we simply tend to do it, and the question is which way is more fulfilling?

Egoist says: “Becoming an individualist of heroic magnitudes is most fulfilling. ”
Altruist says: “Becoming a self-sacrificing saint is most fulfilling. ”

Whose right?

7. Huan - April 3, 2009

By that I meant “who’s right?” I really wish this blog comment thing had an edit button. 🙂 I’m too used to posting on forums with edit buttons.

8. forrest noble - April 3, 2009

Hey Huan, Nina

Haven’t posted here for a while. Thought I’d make a few comments.

As to the compassion of humans, I believe there are countless human examples of compassion where there is seemingly no motive other than empathy.

I recall a study of Chimps where “friends” would sacrifice food even when they were hungry believing the other needed it more. In this case a Chimp in one cage who was hungry handed most of his favorite food to his friend in an adjacent cage.

As to the Neandertal child, I wouldn’t bet the ranch on their conclusion that it was a special needs child. I’ve seen pics of bone fragments where conclusions have been made based upon, in my opinion, very flimsy evidence. But if it’s a valid conclusion it might still reflect on the care of the mother who might have been high ranking in a clan. Most Neandertals, from what I have learned, probably lived in small groups of no larger than maybe 20 individuals. Many, if not most, were nomadic hunter gatherers which would make this care more difficult and remarkable that it would have been tolerated.

9. Paul Moloney - April 4, 2009

I would argue that there is a difference between self-love and selfishness, even if selfishness seems to be self-love. I would say that selfishness is an unreasonable self-love. Selfishness can be considered an excess of self-love. When we are selfish we love ourselves too much. We love ourselves at the expense of being unreasonable to others. When we are selfish, we expect others to love us more than they should; we become too demanding. Actually, it would seem that the selfish person loves the opinion they have of themselves more than they love themselves. Selfishness is based on opinion, while self-love is based on knowledge. Self-love is a definite good, a good that selfish people have lost. Unless we have a healthy self-love, we will never love anyone else. Indeed, the selfish person is thought to love no one but themselves. Self-love is based on the knowledge we have of ourselves. Unless we know ourselves, we will never love ourselves. If we do not know ourselves, we will never know anyone else. The selfish person is ignorant of themselves. If anything, selfishness would seem to be a corruption of self-love. We never benefit ourselves by being unreasonable to someone because of our selfishness. In being unreasonable to someone because of our selfishness we harm ourselves. If we harm ourselves we must hate ourselves. Therefore, the selfish person has no self-love. When we have a good self-love we promote the self-love of others; we promote equality. The selfish person promotes unequality or the inferiority of others.

Some people seem to mean self-love when they are speaking of selfishness. Some people mean humility when they are speaking of pride. The terminology can become very murky in dealing with some concepts. When it comes to love, it can be hard to determine what someone actually means when they use the term. This was brought home to me by Dwight’s comment on Hume. Hume thought we were ultimately determined by our passions rather than by reason. I disagreed with that notion until Dwight’s comment. I translated passion to mean love, as love is thought to be a passion by some, and then everything seem to make sense. Love defies reason, even though it is never unreasonable. I do not know the reason to love, but, if I do not love, I become unreasonable. I am ruled by love rather than by reason, but that seems to be the only way to be a reasonable person. I never thought that I would agree so much with Hume.

10. Nina Rosenstand - April 9, 2009

Forrest, welcome back! You could be right about a misidentification of the Homo heidelbergensis child. Good point about the group size and nomadic culture–all the more difficult to take care of a child with any kind of problems.
Paul, another good point about self-love being different from selfishness. But Hume’s concept of “passion” can’t be directly translated into “love.” Such a translation could imply that we are somehow right in our passions, some kind of moral righteousness founded in our ability to love, a la St. Augustine (“Love, and then do what you will” which has been spun every which way for centuries). But for Hume we just can’t skip from an “is” to an “ought.” Just because we have a passion doesn’t mean it is an appropriate passion…

11. Huan - April 9, 2009

Wait wait that’s a Hume thing? Damn how did Kant turn that whole thing into the categorical imperative? That must have took a lot a lot of work.

12. Paul Moloney - April 10, 2009

I did feel uncomfortable after having interpreted passion to mean love in regards to Hume. Initially, when I think of passion I can easily call to mind the notions of unbridled lust and anger. These would be inappropriate passions, to say the least, especially if you are the victim of these passions. This being the case, and having read Hume’s treatise on virtue, I could not understand why such an intelligent person would argue that we are ruled by our passions. Dwight’s comment on Hume gave me an insight into the matter. His comment gave me a totally new perspective. It seems that everyone has different ideas concerning the passions and emotions. It would have been better if I had qualified my statement. I could have said that if Hume meant by passion, love, and only love, then I would agree that we are ruled by passion, but only the passion of love, and only if we are striving for virtue.

The difficulty with Hume is that he is open to interpretation, which means that no one knows exactly what he means sometimes. Dwight’s comment gave me the opportunity to make a more charitable interpretation. Professor Pidgeon, a delightful professor, and person, taught us, when we are in doubt concerning an interpretation, to give the person the benefit of the doubt and give a charitable interpretation. I would not want the British people, and other adherents of Hume, to think that I was trying to diminish the reputation of Hume by quibbling about words. I would strive to be as logical as possible, but I would think it to be a mistake to be legalistic about every comment one makes.

Also, if not all passion is appropriate, not all love is appropriate. It would seem that we are all ruled by love. Some are dominated by the love of evil, so not all love is good.

Philosophizing is a potentially infinite activity. It is a continuous dialogue until death. As soon as we make one comment we can continue to qualify it, as one comment seemingly has an infinite number of aspects to it.

I can understand if some people are inhibited about making comments on this blog. There are too many intelligent people ready to catch any flaw in your thinking. If it were not for a previous post and comment, I might be able to defend the flaws in my thinking by claiming I am only human, and not only human, but only a man.

13. Joe Crawford - February 2, 2011

Hi — I recently blogged these old doodles from Professor Pidgeon’s class in the 1980s. Googling around to find how the Prof looks today, I didn’t find much, but I am delighted to know that people are still taking his classes and that I wasn’t the only one whose life was changed by taking his classes.

14. Nina Rosenstand - February 2, 2011

Happy to report that Professor Pidgeon is still active, and looks just the same. 🙂

15. Joe Crawford - February 2, 2011

Nina, thanks so much! I may be heading back to San Diego this Spring, perhaps I’ll take his course again someday!

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