Altruism vs. Aggression - Is It in Our DNA?
I've been thinking a lot about altruism lately. With everything going on in the world, it's hard not to.
Hurricane Irene stormed into our lives right before Labor Day and wiped out many communities near me. No one expected a hurricane to inflict such punishment on little villages in the Catskill Mountains of New York – but that's what happened.
At our house, we tried to tough it out but we surrendered as the winds picked up and we realized that way too many trees were leaning longingly toward our roof. We packed up four cats and took shelter in a Holiday Inn about fifteen minutes away.
What we found there was a 21st century Noah's Ark. Dogs grinned at us from balconies on the second floor. Cats peered out of windows into the courtyard. And the people, local evacuees mingled with shellshocked refugees from Long Island, Staten Island and Brooklyn, huddled together sharing whatever updates we had. And we shared what we had.
Phyllis, whose home was knocked off its foundation by flood waters, gave us an LED light and offered me a book when she realized we'd left with nothing but the cats and their food.
Noa, a photographer who'd missed her flight to Fiji, sat with us on the back steps of the hotel as the flood waters rose and shared a bottle of wine.
After an unsuccessful effort to get back home the day after the storm, we reported what we'd seen to everyone whose home was along that route so they'd know what they were likely to find.
It was, in a strange way, really nice. Everyone was kind, they were patient (even when the neighboring river forced the hotel to shut off power) and they were concerned.
It was the way I'd like to think the world could always be.
Once the storm was past, New Yorkers mobilized to try to help. Food donations were coordinated by the Queens Galley, a soup kitchen in Kingston NY that has been serving three meals a day, seven days a week, to anyone who is hungry. They're on the knife edge of survival – their building is unsafe, they have no money to repair and they may be forced to close. But that worry was put aside and all their energy has gone into helping make sure that no one displaced by Irene goes hungry.
Machan Taylor, a singer songwriter who lives in a small community in the Catskills, has been organizing a benefit concert for the survivors of the earthquake and tsunami and Japan. It culminates in a concert at BB King's in New York City on September 21st and a CD collection of songs from other Japanese American musicians will be available at themotherlandproject.com. But Hurricane Irene has already spawned her next project – organizing local New York musicians to help benefit those displaced by the flood waters.
This, to me, is humanity at its best. And we're all capable of it. Yet so often we don't do it. Bickering, division and anger has seemed to dominate society for the past few years.
This weekend, I read a book that made me wonder again. "Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo" was written by Vanessa Woods. She found herself in the Congo after marrying a researcher. She'd worked with chimps, but had never heard of a bonobo. Neither had I.
They look like chimps, but they're an entirely different species and a world apart. They're found only in the Congo.
So there, in the midst of war and rape and atrocities and danger, at the Lola ya Bonobo, founded by Frenchwoman Claudine Andre, Woods and her husband studied the bonobos. And here's where it gets really interesting.
Like chimpanzees, bonobos share 98.7% of our DNA. If you don't know the physical differences, you might not know the difference between chimps and bonobos. But the differences are huge.
Chimps become anxious in the presence of strangers. The males are in charge. Chimps fight. They make war. They do not, given a choice, share.
But study after study have shown that bonobo clans, which are run by an elder female, are peaceful. They cooperate. They share. They may argue, they may fight, but they do not make war. When the see a stranger, they're usually curious and delighted. What they do is have sex. Lots of it. Love, for a bonobo, is a way to bond, to comfort, to have fun.
All these threads are still loose in my hand – I have yet to pull them together. But I see there's something to consider here – the role of testosterone, of male dominance, of genetics and of potential.
Altruism is part of our DNA. Crisis brings out the very best in most of us. The trick is remembering that when the crisis is past.
To hear more on this story, Machan Taylor will be on 51% show 1157, Thurs Sept 15.
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Barnett is the producer and host of 51%
The Women’s Perspective,
a weekly women’s issues radio show carried nationally on NPR,
ABC and Armed Forces Radio stations. 51% The Women’s Perspective
is part of WAMC
- Northeast Public Radio's national productions. "The View From Outside," Susan Barnett's new collection of short fiction, is available in eBook format at Amazon and Barnes and Noble through Hen House Press. You can connect with her on Facebook.
Photo by DB Leonard.