Hardwired for Altruism or Man is Wolf to Man?

If you’ve been following Ben LeRoy’s discussion on violence in fiction, he quotes a recent WSJ article states that we are Hard-wired for Giving. When we support a cause we identify as good, helping those in need, the same centers of the brain fire with activity as when we crave a bacon cheeseburger or a little tussle in the dark with a hottie. That’s right, giving fires the pleasure centers of the brain.
But aren’t we born to be selfish? Isn’t civilization a thin veneer of morality over the base nature of human savagery?
Maybe not.

We are animals, primates. If you want to understand human behavior, read Jane Goodall, or Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee. Watch a chimp troop. They have an alpha mating pair. Some cleave to the leaders, others connive. They sneak sex, because they are not allowed to breed. They will kill each other’s babies, and tear each other’s faces and genitals off in combat. They will wage war against rival troops over resources. But those are the extremes; the political maneuvering is more interesting, and human behavior is similar. The strong will battle you face on, but the smart will chip away at your foundations of power while pretending to be your friend.

Unlike chimps, we will help our fellows whether we are related or not. Humans are weak, hairless apes who barely made it. Our major evolutionary advantage is our ability to run for long distances and persevere. It’s even theorized that our large brain was a coincidence, meant as a cooling mechanism for our blood on those long chases after food (or fleeing angry chimps). And those who used that large brain most efficiently survived.

What does this mean? That’s up for you to decide. I’ve sided with the apes who help each other. But I won’t hesitate to tear the genitals off any apes who come after our children.

“We are hardwired for altruism.”
“We are nature, red in tooth in claw.”

Both are true. The struggle between those urges is what makes us human.

ape skull

One thought on “Hardwired for Altruism or Man is Wolf to Man?

  1. I think that’s actually why crime fiction — in all its many forms — resonates with so many people. You have a lot of cops and amateur sleuths and vigilante grandmothers who want to solve crimes and set things right. And there’s a lot of drinking and fighting and revenge because people aren’t always nice, even when they’re trying or wanting to do the right thing.
    Rebecca Robbins and Denny the Dent are miles apart in appearance and method, but they both just want to set things right — even if “right” looks wrong when they’re done.

    Things don’t always work out for the bad guy in crime fiction and when they do (and we don’t throw the book or story across the room), it’s because we can identify so well with the lawbreaker that we want him or her to succeed. Stella Hardesty hardly follows the letter of the law, but most of the time readers want her to win.

    Maybe this has something to do with the sociopaths we keep giving power…

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