Natural altruism

Updated: 21 May 2008, 22:16

Originally written: 11 March 2006

Psychology researcher Felix Warneken of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, reports, in Science magazine, that 18-month-old children will try to help even when they are not rewarded for that help. In other words, the 24 toddlers used as test subjects were altruistic.

Warneken performed ordinary tasks, such as hanging towels with clothespins or stacking books. If he deliberately dropped a clothespin, or a book, the toddlers would not help out. But, if it appeared that he was having difficulty, and accidentally dropped a book or clothespin, the babies would, within seconds, try to help, by picking up the object and returning it to Warneken.

In one video, a baby glanced between the researcher’s face and the dropped clothespin. Then, apparently deciding that Warneken needed help, crawled to the clothespin, picked it up, and pushed up to his feet to hand the clothespin back to Warneken.

If this is evidence of human nature, it defeats the frequently used assault on the concept of socialism that people are naturally uncooperative, and cooperate only when forced to do so. If it is evidence of learned behaviour, it shows that 18-month-old babies have already learned to act pro-socially. That means in a satisfactory, positive social environment, people will demonstrate desirable, socially beneficial, behaviour.

In either case, when people build a satisfactory, positive social environment — socialism — people will behave in a manner which will make that society work.

People are quite capable of building socialism, and this research shows that we are not destined by our genetic makeup to destroy that which we will build. It shows, yet again, that the “human nature argument” that humans are incapable of living cooperatively, is false. Believing that we are inherently “bad” is not only demeaning to our species, but frightens us from moving forward to build a better society. Believing we cannot live cooperatively condemns us, and our descendants, to a world of war, of poverty, and of overwork. We condemn ourselves to suppressing our positive social behaviour so that we just survive, rather than live the full lives we could.

We can live lives much better than today, if only we decide to cooperate to end capitalism and build socialism.

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