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Not Selfish by Nature April 1, 2009

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

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