There are tides in the affairs of science that reflect and at times even predict the greater tides in society at large. Optimism about our biological and psychological potential for salvation may be the theme of the 1990s. Experienced science writers Morton Hunt and Alfie Kohn have produced, independently, popular books about the human capacity for empathy, altruism, and what they define as "pro-social" behavior. In other words, we have two volumes demonstrating that people can be good, and with some encouragement, can be even better.
Hunt's "The Compassionate Beast" and Kohn's "The Brighter Side of Human Nature" refer, on the whole, to the same cluster of psychological and sociological studies that affirm the existence of altruism as an integral part of human behavior. Why do people dive into rushing water, give blood anonymously or risk their lives and those of their families to protect strangers? There is no quid pro quo for these acts, and like the rescuers who drowned in the Sierras this winter trying to save the young campers who fell through the ice, there were no familial ties between the victims and their would-be saviors. The answer seems to be that they felt the threat as if threatened themselves and acted to ease the pain.
Hunt's book is less ambitious than Kohn's and a great deal more accessible. By dramatizing not only the heroics of memorable altruists but also the lives and motivations of the investigators who set up experiments or surveys to test their hypotheses, he leaves indelible impressions of his subjects.
Hunt notes that good deeds, like the rescue of three car passengers from the frigid Potomac in 1982 by Arland Williams Jr., who died during the ordeal, are less understandable to most of us than those selfish, aggressive or brutal acts that benefit the actor. We tend to doubt the motives of heroes, suspecting that underneath it all there must be a lust for praise, for public approval. But whether or not there is such motivation, we cannot deny that heroic acts occur, acts in which "behavior is carried out to benefit another without anticipation of rewards from external sources."
Hunt seems to accept the human capacity for evil without dwelling on its causes. Kohn, who is equally convinced that people are capable of generosity and kindness, does not seem to accept the explanation that man's inhumanity to man is part of the package. He attributes the contemporary acceptance of selfishness and brutality as facts of life to a mistaken general belief in heredity over environment. He implies that many people believe that our nastiness is biologically "hard-wired," and that non-negotiable factors such as excess testosterone in men or right-brainedness lead to aggression and insensitivity.
While Hunt explores the personal motivations of the researchers whose work he describes, Kohn focuses on what he sees as the enemy--sociobiology and scientific reductionism. Neither author pays much attention to animal models, but Hunt finds some work with animals worth describing. Rather than excoriate certain evolutionary biologists, he dismisses the idea that a single gene could be responsible for such complex human drives as ambition or romantic love. Hunt does not accuse scientists who use terms like "the altruistic gene" of serving an authoritarian political agenda. Rather he calls the phrase a scientific "shorthand: it refers to those built-in neural and visceral reactions to distress in others that are the substructure of altruistic behavior."
Both authors build on the work of the late Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who discovered that infants and children develop in specific stages. Piaget's work implies that at a certain stage, usually about the age of 7, children are able to put themselves in someone else's shoes, to imagine someone else's pain, and act to soothe and comfort as they would like to be comforted. Both authors also refer frequently to the remarkable work of Holocaust survivor Saul Oliner, a Humboldt State University sociologist. Oliner mapped the motives, explanations and backgrounds of European Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II. Contrary to expectation, he found that these altruists included both self-confident and insecure people, the deeply religious as well as atheists. The single trait these heroes shared was an upbringing free from corporal punishment where, instead, their parents reasoned with them.
Hunt's approach is rich in anecdote and narrative. He includes a test so the reader can measure his or her own sensibilities. Kohn tends to emphasize the psychological and philosophical ramifications of what it takes to have a humane society.
Besides style, a major difference in the way these authors document altruistic behavior is the way each suggests change be effected. Hunt seems, almost naively, to take for granted that most people want their children to be kind and generous and good. Kohn believes our selfishness is the product of a society dominated by people committed to competition and individualism. In fact, Kohn indicts individualism for the widespread appeal of belief systems that promise transcendence. He suggests that "our detachment from others has turned us into hitchhikers, anxious to escape the self in the first vehicle that comes down the road--even one that propels us right past humanity."
Their conclusions reveal their agendas. Hunt sums up: "Perhaps it is time for another call to arms. . . . to serve in a Helping Corps or a Samaritan Service would bring us to our feet cheering, sensing that our inner desire to do good to our fellow human beings can transform and ennoble us, and that when we ask not how we can be served but how we can serve, we ourselves are well serviced." And Kohn, clearly impressed by the feminist idea of Carol Gilligan that women speak "in a different voice," declares: "Very roughly, my intention here is to contrast an individual morality with a relational one, a cognitive morality with an affective one, a principle- or rule-based morality with one grounded in care or empathy."
Although both authors downplay the evidence of altruism in other social mammals, those studies, together with the experiments they describe in their books, add weight to the argument that we are biologically as well as psychologically primed to act kindly toward one another. These tendencies can be cultivated by encouraging pro-social behavior in school and cooperative learning, as well as by example at home. Whatever the power of heredity, these authors are eager for the pendulum to swing toward the efficacy of a good environment and they intend, with their books, to give the pendulum a good push. Would that they are right, that human beings are kinder and more generous than it sometimes seems and that by cultivating empathy in our children we can achieve a more peaceable kingdom.
Next: Jonathan Kirsch reviews Michael Gannon's "Operation Drumbeat: The Dramatic True Story of Germany's First U-Boat Attacks Along the American Coast" (Harper and Row).