December 1, 2009
 We May Be Born With an Urge to Help

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.

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
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
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

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. Chimpanzees, by contrast, never point at things for each other, and
when they point for people, it seems to be as a command to go fetch
something rather than to share information.

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 vociferously.

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.

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.

If children are naturally helpful and sociable, what system of child-rearing
best takes advantage of this surprising propensity? Dr. Tomasello says that
the approach known as inductive parenting works best because it reinforces
the child’s natural propensity to cooperate with others. Inductive parenting
is simply communicating with children about the effect of their actions on
others and emphasizing the logic of social cooperation.

“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.

A similar conclusion has been reached independently by Hillard S. Kaplan, an
anthropologist at the University of New
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
foraging societies — requires cooperation between the sexes. Young
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.

The structure of early human societies, including their “high levels of
cooperation between kin and nonkin,” was thus an adaptation to the
“specialized foraging niche” of food resources that were too difficult for
other primates to capture, Dr. Kaplan and colleagues wrote recently in The
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. We evolved to be nice to
each other, in other words, because there was no alternative.

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

“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 psychopaths.

Indeed, it is in our biological nature, not our political institutions, that
we should put our trust, in his view. Our empathy is innate and cannot be
changed or long suppressed. “In fact,” Dr. de Waal writes, “I’d argue that
biology constitutes our greatest hope. One can only shudder at the thought
that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics,
culture or religion.”

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.

If people do bad things to others in their group, they can behave even worse
to those outside it. Indeed the human capacity for cooperation “seems to
have evolved mainly for interactions within the local group,” Dr. Tomasello

Sociality, the binding together of members of a group, is the first
requirement of defense, since without it people will not put the group’s
interests ahead of their own or be willing to sacrifice their lives in
battle. Lawrence H. Keeley, an anthropologist who has traced aggression
among early peoples, writes in his book “War Before Civilization” that,
“Warfare is ultimately not a denial of the human capacity for cooperation,
but merely the most destructive expression of it.”

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.”