Researchers seek to explain why humans are wired to help

Researchers seek to explain why humans are wired to help

Two recent books propose the universality of altruism
Feb 11, 2010
By staff

Have you ever considered the motivations of your veterinary team members? They've certainly been driven to their profession by the desire for stature, respect, and monetary compensation. But, from the veterinarians on down, there's something more underlying the goal of societal and fiscal rewards: At the core of working in the veterinary field is the desire to aid and protect animals. A pair of new books posit that the wish to help is something with which we humans are born.

Dr. Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Research in Leipzig, Germany, suggests in his book, Why We Cooperate, that the tendency to help is innate. He points out that infants across varied cultures display helping behavior prior to its being taught by parents. Infants, he says, are prone to help even though the act exists outside of a rewards framework. There is no payoff for their actions, which implies that they come naturally.

As children become socialized, Dr. Tomasello continues, they become selective with their helpfulness. They may be more likely to help someone who has been nice to them, for example. Though the helpfulness may become more specialized, it is always there. Dr. Frans de Waal agrees. He says, in the recently published The Age of Empathy, "We're preprogrammed to reach out." In fact, Dr. de Waal believes that this biological predisposition is one of humanity's greatest attributes, a pure and insuppressible trait that serves as a check against manmade constructions like politics.

As it satisfies personal and inborn goals, a career in a medical field may be one of the most rewarding since, as Dr. Tomasello puts it, "We are both selfish and altruistic at the same time."