APS Member/Author: Alison Gopnik
The last few weeks have seen extraordinary displays of altruism. Ordinary people have transformed their lives—partly to protect themselves and the people they love from the Covid-19 pandemic, but also to help other people they don’t even know. But where does altruism come from? How could evolution by natural selection produce creatures who sacrifice themselves for others?
In her 2019 book “Conscience,” the philosopher Patricia Churchland argues that altruism has its roots in our mammalian ancestry. The primordial example of an altruistic emotion is the love that mothers feel toward their babies. Helpless baby mammals require special care from their nursing mothers, and emotional attachment guarantees this care.
Those emotions and motivations are associated with a distinctive pattern of brain activations, hormones and genes. Twenty years ago, neuroscientists discovered that the same brain mechanisms that accompany mother love also operate when mammals care about their mates. Only about 5% of mammal species are “pair-bonded,” with mates who act like partners—seeking out each other’s company, raising babies together and actively helping each other. It turns out that those pair-bonded species, like prairie voles, have co-opted the biology that underpins mother love.
In a 2017 paper in the journal Cognition, researchers Rachel Magid and Laura Schulz of M.I.T. showed that when we care for another person in this altruistic way, we extend our own needs to include theirs, in a process they describe as ”moral alchemy.” A caregiver—whether human or vole, mother or father or grandparent or alloparent—doesn’t just do what’s good for the baby because of an abstract obligation or an implicit contract. It’s because the baby’s needs have become as important to them as their own.
Our long, helpless childhood gives humans a great advantage in return: It gives us to time to learn, imagine and invent. We combine these intellectual abilities with the primordial emotions of care. We can imagine new technologies and use them for altruistic purposes, from medical discoveries about how to fight viruses to Zoom sessions that let me tell my grandchildren I love them.
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