Jewish Journal


December 1, 2009

A Natural Urge to Help


Working in the civil rights field for nearly 35 years gives one a perspective on human behavior, both the good and the bad. People are exceptionally gracious when facing adversity, thoughtful when their problems are dealt with and generous in acknowledging assistance…..or not.

Even with this blog in the Jewish Journal, my partner, Joe Hicks, and I have been the recipients of some very laudatory responses, some articulate and thoughtful adversarial postings, and some downright nasty e-mails that didn’t even get posted.

The roughest attacks we get generally relate to our “having blinders on” that prevent us from seeing the innate bigotry and hate that lies just below the surface of otherwise tolerant seeming Americans. One inveterate critic suggests that our view of an improving and more tolerant America is paving the road to another Auschwitz, “ cause it looks like the same stupid game you morons played in Germany.  We’re Germans first, Jews second, then they’ll accept us.” 

Today’s New York TimesScience section offers some important support for those of us who believe that human nature bends in the direction of tolerance and co-operation among peoples.

In an article entitled, We May Be Born With An Urge To Help, the author, Nicholas Wade, describes some fascinating studies which suggest 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…..The helping behavior seems to be innate because it appears so early and before many parents start teaching children the rules of polite behavior.”

And it isn’t just American kids who might be subject to the good feelings on Sesame Street who exhibit this behavior. “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.”  The scientists cited conclude that “helping is a natural inclination, not something imposed by parents or culture….Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control…..Children are altruistic by nature,” though they are also naturally selfish. The author advises that parents should tip the balance toward social behavior.

Among the implications of the studies is that we should be mindful of our better natures as we fashion public policy, “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. “ Dr. Frans 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.”

Next nasty blog we get telling me how naïve our optimistic view of America’s future is we’ll send a link to today’s New York Times.

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