The premier issue of Scientific American Mind caught my attention with the headline ‘Explaining the Kindness of Strangers, Why We Help' because I have waited for a long time to see the topic discussed in terms of science. "The Samaritan Paradox" by Ernst Fehr and Suzann-Viola Renninger did not break any new ground. When I saw the word ‘altruism' I knew it was time to join the debate. Following is my letter to the editor of Scientific American Mind, Volume 14, Number 5 which was on sale December 2004. If you are interested in the topic of evolution selecting for human kindness, I will be adding more essays and letters at in the coming months. Nancy Sherer

December 5, 2004
Editor, Scientific American Mind

Dear Editor,

Altruism as discussed in ‘The Samaritan Paradox' muddies the scientific discussion about the origin of benevolence in Homo sapiens. ‘Good' exists only as an artifact of human genetics. From patrons to patriots, we have ample evidence that Homo sapiens' benevolent behavior is a dominance display as well as an effective way to secure progeny, but still the scientific community continues to bandy about ‘altruism' speculations as though goodness had a supernatural existence. It doesn't. Food sharing, self-sacrifice, and all the various types of human benevolence are as much a product of Homo sapiens genetics as honey is the product of bees.

Neither is it difficult to imagine how this genetic trait fit into Homo sapiens' evolution. Jane Goodall's description of meat-sharing among chimpanzees points to one possible starting place for benevolent behavior. When male chimps were observed sharing meat with estrus females, their motivation was obvious. They had sexual access to a fertile female at least until a dominant male noticed her availability.

What would happen if a prehistoric hominid found this to be a significant reproductive advantage? While the prehistoric chest-beating hominids vied for the best position on the rocks, our ancestor offered meat to females who weren't quite fertile yet. Or perhaps he offered food to immature hominids to attract attention of their mother. Either way, he was the first in line as estrus approached.

Not that our first mothers weren't part of the equation. Unlike other hominids, human females hide estrus. Females who were sexually available regardless of their fertility cycle had a handy, safe source of extra meat. The meat-sharing male would be surrounded by potential mothers' for his offspring, while the females competed for his attention with secondary sex characteristics such as large breasts or a slender waist that could be used to advertise fertility. While non-meat-sharing males would be oblivious to the fertile female, the meat-sharer would gather a harem. The squabbling males would never even notice they were getting cut out of the gene pool.

As generations progress, males who could be trusted around infants would increase their odds at being first in line for reproductive possibilities. And finally, if a male provided food and protection for the infant another human characteristic could evolve - a mother with numerous, helpless offspring. While chimps produce one offspring every five years, a Homo sapiens female, surrounded by her beneficent species can produce a baby every two to three years. Clearly, a gene for beneficence puts us in the evolutionary category of fit for survival. Even if our benevolence evolved in a different way, we know it did evolve in some way because our behavior proves it.

Our ancestors continued in an ever widening spiral of benevolence resulting in successful reproduction. We even define a lack of benevolence, such as greed or unnecessary cruelty as aberrant behavior. Homo sapiens' benevolence extends beyond food-sharing, but it all follows the same logic. Protecting the weak, feeding the hungry, and sacrificing oneself for the common good are dominance displays. After all, people don't sign their sons up for the Boy Scouts to teach them submissive behavior. To do a good deed everyday is the mark of a superior male. No one calls a fireman a fool for running into a burning building. We call him a hero. There is an obvious connection between our reverence for a benevolent male and that male's status.

Although people are fond of talking about the top dog, the lion's share or pecking order, human dominance hierarchies are not based on abuse or physical threats. Unlike lions, wolves, chickens or chimps, when an unrelated male enters the territory of a human male he is fed, sheltered, and entertained. These aren't learned behaviors or social standards, and neither are they expressions of affection. Just as the dominance of wolves can be estimated by the way they elevate their tales, so can the dominance of men be estimated by who pays for lunch.

Like dominance displays of other species, human benevolence plays a vital role in survival and reproduction. Leave behind the nonsense discussions of altruism because there is no Samaritan paradox. We are brutal because we are animals. We are benevolent because evolution favored it.


Nancy Sherer


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