Peony, being elderly and arthritic, moves with difficulty. Fortunately, members of her community fetch what she needs and steady her as she hobbles to social gatherings. Why do these individuals, most of whom are unrelated to Peony, help her without any expectation of personal benefit?
Do we innately care about the well-being others? Or are we naturally selfish but society imbues us with an overlay of morality? Many philosophers through many millennia have wrestled with this question. Recent science answer it.
In the case of Peony’s helpers, nature unequivocally drives their service. They have never heard a third-grade or Sunday-school teacher preach the virtues of kindness. They, and Peony, are chimpanzees who live in Emory University’s Yerkes Primate Center’s field station in Georgia.
It turns out that the animal kingdom, the mammalian class especially, is replete with selfless behaviors. The researcher who documented Peony’s fortunate existence, Frans de Waal, has also documented that chimpanzees choose collective rewards over rewards for only themselves. Other researchers have found that chimpanzees forgo some of their own food to feed a friend. The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany found that most semi-wild chimpanzees climbed an eight-foot ropeway to help an unfamiliar human who was struggling to reach a stick.
Humans share 99% of chimpanzees’ genetics. The similarities include mirror neurons designed to feel the fear, joy or other emotions of those nearby, and brains that give us an oxytocin high when we help others. (Learn about these cool biological inclinations toward empathy and service in a prior post.)
In other words, there is little scientific doubt that our animal nature drives us to buy gifts for underprivileged children we’ve never met and donate to homeless shelters during this time of year. In fact, the aforementioned Max Planck Institute study found that human toddlers, who have not yet been socialized, acted as the chimps did: They helped the unfamiliar human retrieve the stick.
I’m not suggesting that parenting, religion and other societal influences don’t promote selfless behavior. Research finds that they do. Indeed, we are so sensitive to culture that songs with caring lyrics make us more caring. The power of Christmas carols, however, isn’t that they counter our natural inclination, but that they call it forth.
This Christmas celebrate that you are nice to the core. That’s not to say that your biological wiring doesn’t include some naughty circuits. Peony’s helpers also act selfishly and pick fights. So do most humans. Your inherent nature, however, is as kind as it is anything.
The spirit of giving is in all of us. Whether you’re religious or not, let your caring nature shine forth this season.
 Victoria Hornera, Devyn Cartera, Malini Suchaka and Frans B. M. de Waal. “Spontaneous prosocial choice by chimpanzees,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PNAS. August 16, 2011 vol. 108 no. 33. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/33/13847.abstract  Martin Schmelza, Sebastian Grueneisena, Alihan Kabalakb, Jürgen Jostb, and Michael Tomaselloa, “Chimpanzees return favors at a personal cost” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PNAS. July 11, 2017 vol. 114 no. 28. http://www.pnas.org/content/114/28/7462.abstract  Felix Warneken, Brian Hare, Alicia P. Melis, Daniel Hanus and Michael Tomasello, “Spontaneous altruism by chimpanzees and young children,” in PLoS Biol 5(7): e184, 2007. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050184  Roman M. Wittig, Catherine Crockford, Tobias Deschner, Kevin E. Langergraber, Toni E. Ziegler, Klaus Zuberbühler. “Food sharing is linked to urinary oxytocin levels and bonding in related and unrelated wild chimpanzees” in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 15 January 2014. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.3096  Tobias Greitemeyer, “Effects of songs with prosocial lyrics on prosocial behavior: further evidence and a mediating mechanism” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2009 Nov;35(11):1500-11. DOI: 10.1177/0146167209341648.
This post was originally published on LinkedIn on the post date and reposted here in January 2018 when this site launched.