Humans are said to be selfish, and the assertion that greed is good has been followed. But is altruism really an illusion? Though evolutionary theorists have a tendency to focus on competition and the ruthlessness of natural selection, they often find themselves not being able to explain one crucial fact -- that humans could not have survived in nature without the charity and social reciprocity of a group.
German researchers have discovered that infants as young as 18 months display altruistic behavior, which suggests that humans have a natural inclination towards being helpful.
In experiments reported in the journal Science, toddlers helped strangers complete tasks such as stacking books and picking up something that was dropped.
Young chimps did the same, providing the first direct evidence of altruism in non-human primates.
The study suggests that altruism may have evolved six million years ago in the common ancestor of chimps and humans.
Scientists have long debated what leads people to "act out of the goodness of their hearts" by helping non-relatives, regardless of any benefits for themselves.
Human society depends on people being able to collaborate with others -- donating to charity, paying taxes, and so on -- and many scientists have argued that altruism is a uniquely human function, hard-wired into our brains.
"This is the first experiment showing altruistic helping towards goals in any non-human primate," said Felix Warneken, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
"It's been claimed chimpanzees act mainly for their own ends; but in our experiment, there was no reward and they still helped."
According to the BBC, Dr. Warneken and colleague Professor Michael Tomasello wanted to see whether very young children who had not yet learned social skills were willing to help strangers.
The experimenters performed simple tasks like dropping a clothes peg out of reach while hanging items on a line, or mis-stacking a pile of books.
Nearly all of the group of twenty-four 18-month-olds helped by picking up the peg or the book, usually in the first 10 seconds of the experiment.
They only did this if they believed the researcher needed the object to complete the task -- if it was thrown on the ground deliberately, they didn't pick it up.
"The results were astonishing because these children are so young - they still wear diapers and are barely able to use language, but they already show helping behavior," said Felix Warneken.
The pair went on to investigate more complicated tasks, such as retrieving an object from a box with a flap.
When the scientists accidentally dropped a spoon inside, and pretended they did not know about the flap, the children helped retrieve it. And they only did this if they believed the spoon had not been dropped deliberately.
The tasks were repeated with three young chimpanzees that had been raised in captivity. The chimps did not help in more complex tasks such as the box experiment, but did assist the human looking after them in simple tasks such as reaching for a lost object.
"Children and chimpanzees are both willing to help, but they appear to differ in their ability to interpret the other's need for help in different situations," the two researchers write in Science.
Another study found that 3- to 5-year-olds tend to give a greater share of a reward (stickers, in this case) to a partner who has done more work on a task — again, without being asked — even if it means they get to keep less for themselves. And those cries of "That's not fair!" that plague sibling relationships: they're not only selfish, they reflect children's apparently innate desire for equity.
Fundamental tendencies toward altruism aren't only seen in children, either. Worldwide, the aftermath of natural disasters are typically characterized by heroism and a sharing of resources -- within the affected community and in others farther way -- not selfish panics as many are made to believe. During the terrorist attacks of 9/11, for example, there were no accounts of people being trampled rushing out of the World Trade Center towers. Rather, those who needed assistance descending were cared for, and calm mainly prevailed. The same occurred after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in Japan in 2011. The cases in which people stampede or look out only for themselves tend to be rare and involve very specific circumstances that mitigate against helpfulness.
Our stress systems seem to be designed to connect us to others. They calm down when we are feeling close to people we care about -- whether related to us or not -- and spike during isolation and loneliness. According to Time, even short periods of solitary confinement can derange the mind and damage the body because of the stress they create. And having no social support can be as destructive to health as cigarette smoking.
Of course, none of this is to say that humans are never selfish or that we don't have a grasping, greedy part of our nature. But, "the father of economics," Adam Smith's belief that humans are inherently selfish may not hold true after all.
Maybe competition isn't natural and war is in fact avoidable – so much time has been spent highlighting and saying the bad in human nature is stronger than the good, but what if it's not? What if our natural instinct is to be altruistic, and fighting it means we're actually going against our grain?
[Image via NY Time]