The Altruism of Babies

I have a 13 month old baby who has recently started offering us portions of her food to share. Of course, she also throws herself on the floor and screams when you stop her from climbing on everything like a monkey. Basically I am living with both sides of the argument over whether people are intrinsically good or bad quite well. Really, it’s a stupid argument, IMO. If we’re made by or in the image of the divine, then we have something intrinsically good in us. If we also demonstrate a willingness to beat someone with a hard toy to get a cookie, then there’s also something intrinsically bad in us as well. But claiming that it’s one or the other seems preposterous to me.

At any rate, all you have to do is look in the daily paper for evidence to support the idea that people are born bad and need to be civilized to overcome their fallen nature. But now science is scoring a point for those of us who think that’s far too simplistic a story line. A study published in the journal Science has found that toddlers show a natural tendency towards altruism (story about the study here). In the experiment the scientists performed tasks in front of toddlers while appearing to need simple help like picking up something which had fallen out of reach. The toddlers very consistently and without exception tried to help when they saw the need even though these people were strangers and there was no reward. According to one of the scientists who conducted the study:

“The results were astonishing because these children are so young – they still wear diapers and are barely able to use language, but they already show helping behaviour,” said Felix Warneken.

Of course chimps in similar studies behave in much the same way – they just aren’t as good at figuring out when someone needs help as human babies are.

If nothing else, I suppose I should be glad that my daughter shares something in common with monkeys beyond an uncontrollable urge to climb. I wonder if baby chimps throw temper tantrums? Hmmmm . . .

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