Arizona Tragedy Highlights The Mystery Of Altruism

Let me first offer a few comments on the ongoing "killer-instinct" thread, and then a few comments on Tucson.

Marcelo’s core point in yesterday’s blog post was that it’s not so much that we have a killer instinct or impulse. Rather, it’s that we can be manipulated into killing by fear.

I would expand that to say that our core human vulnerability is that we can be manipulated. Full stop.

Three inborn human traits, all inherently adaptive, seem particularly open to manipulation: fear, greed, and tribalism.

Acute fear — the reflexive fight-or-flight response — is probably the most ancient animal emotion, initiated deep in the limbic system and mediated by the ancient hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. Acute fear is, of course, a good thing to feel when confronted with physical danger, like a tsunami or a tiger or a violent assailant. We resist or we head for the hills.

When fear is manipulated, a person is convinced to harbor chronic fear. The feared entity may be external, like street crime or gay marriage or Islam, which s/he then attempts to resolve by purchasing guns (thereby remunerating the gun industry) or voting for Prop B or vandalizing a mosque. Or it may be internal, like being manipulated into a chronic fear losing one’s health or status, leading to the purchase of bogus medications or membership in gangs. The scope can, of course, also expand, like being manipulated into a chronic fear of invasion, thereby generating support for, or participation in, military campaigns.

Self-maintenance is adaptive — when hungry or cold, it is essential to seek food and shelter — but this can be manipulated into greed, either the greed we call consumerism — wanting ever more stuff — or into the larger-scale greed that leads to territorial conquest, as in colonialism or in Hitler’s call for Lebensraum.

Tribalism is also an apparently ubiquitous human instinct, where recent studies suggest that it is also hormone-mediated, in this case by oxitocin. It can serve us well when fostering community and providing succor. But when tribalism is manipulated, often by fomenting fear of "others" and/or greed to obtain their land or possessions, it can result in much of the havoc humans have visited upon one another throughout our history.

To understand our nature as fraught with vulnerability to manipulation rather than steeped in evil is not to wave a magic wand. But whereas the concept of inherent human evil carries a gloomy prognosis, human vulnerabilities are open to therapy, to education and to legislation, moving the hope that our condition will improve into the realm of the possible.

Although I reject the notion of an inherently evil human nature, I have no problem acknowledging that certain persons collapse into evil not via manipulation but via mental disorder. Some infamous killers in our recent history — like Mark Chapman, John Hinckley, Seung-Hui Cho — were clearly afflicted with the kinds of chaos that haunt the minds of those diagnosed with psychopathy or paranoid schizophrenia. For such persons, mercifully few in number, the act of killing other humans takes place in a whole different level of reality.

Which takes me to Tucson.

Amidst the heartbrokenness that I shared with the world, I also found myself poring over the news releases and grasping at the straws of something else: a renewed belief in inherent human goodness.

As President Obama lifted up for us last night in his beautiful eulogy, we bore witness to acts of extraordinary altruism: Patricia Maisch wrestling away the magazine clip; Joe Zamudio rushing into the fray from a nearby Walgreens to help bring Loughner down; George Morris attempting, in vain, to shield his wife Dorothy from the bullets; Dorwin Stoddard who did the same thing and saved his wife Mavy while being killed himself; and Daniel Hernandez who ran into the field of fire to attend to the wounded Gabby Giffords.

Altruism has baffled evolutionary theorists because, unlike fear and greed, it is not an adaptive behavior conducive to generating future offspring. Some argue that altruism is adaptive when one risks one’s life for a blood relative given that genes are shared, an argument that always struck me as something of a stretch.

But here we have full-blown altruism, unanticipated and unrehearsed, popping through in human after human, as instinctively as sneezing, restoring our souls.

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