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Why Altruism Baffles Men

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Oren Harman's The Price of Altruism (Norton, 2010) is about the "puzzle," "riddle," or "mystery" of altruism. In reviewing it for the NYT, it struck me that each and every personality featured in the book -- from Darwin to Kropotkin, and from Trivers to Wilson, not to mention the central character George Price himself -- is male.

The study of behavioral evolution includes plenty of women, but they don't seem attracted to the same degree to the enigma of altruism. Is altruism less puzzling to them?

What exactly is the puzzle? Animals help each other, sometimes at great expense to themselves. Some give their life for others. If everything in nature is about survival and reproduction, they should not be doing so, one would think. Darwin already puzzled about how self-sacrifice could have evolved -- many others have followed since.

Leaving aside the altruistic behavior of slime molds and social insects, a typically mammalian response to the need of another is by empathizing. Empathy is by no means a guarantee for helpful behavior, but often a starting point. Empathy is widely believed to have grown out of mammalian nurturing tendencies as it employs the neurophysiology of maternal care -- even among adults. We cuddle someone who is distressed, reach out to friends at a funeral, sympathize with people who get hurt, and so on. We employ common maternal behavior. I know, I know, we don't do so all the time, and probably not nearly enough, but almost everyone is born with this capacity. We also know that empathy is enhanced if psychologists spray oxytocin in the nostrils of men and women, thus fooling them with the maternal hormone par excellence.

So, we shouldn't be surprised that empathy is more developed in women than men. The claim has even been made that the female (but not male) brain is hard-wired for empathy. I doubt that the differences are that absolute, but we do know that at birth girl babies look longer at faces than boy babies, who look longer at mechanical toys. Later in life, girls are more prosocial than boys, better readers of emotional expressions, more attuned to voices, more remorseful after having hurt someone, and better at taking someone else's perspective.

In our own studies of how chimpanzees console distressed parties -- interpreted as expressing concern - we found that females did so far more often than males. They approach a victim of aggression, tenderly put an arm around them, and hug them until the screaming stops. There is no good reason to believe, therefore, that human sex differences in empathy are a mere product of education and culture.

It's not particularly manly to admit to empathy. One reason why it has taken so long for research in this area to take off is that academics saw empathy as a bleeding-heart topic associated with the weaker sex. This attitude is exemplified by Bernard de Mandeville, a philosopher and satirist of the 18th Century, who presented "pity" as a character flaw:

"Pity, though it is the most gentle and the least mischievous of all our passions, is yet as much a frailty of our nature, as anger, pride, or fear. The weakest minds have generally the greatest share of it, for which reason none are more compassionate than women and children. It must be owned, that of all our weaknesses it is the most amiable, and bears the greatest resemblance to virtue; nay, without a considerable mixture of it, the society could hardly subsist."

The tortuous nature of this statement is understandable for a cynic who, long before Ayn Rand, gave the world its first gospel of greed. Mandeville didn't know where to fit the tender emotions, but was at least honest enough to recognize that society would be in trouble without them.

Most men can be quite empathic, as everyone knows, especially in relation to loved ones, such as parents, wife, children, and close friends. The same applies in relation to unfamiliar, neutral parties, such as when men can't keep their eyes dry during a romantic movie. With their portal open, men are as empathetic as women.

But things change radically when men enter a competitive arena, such as when they're advancing their interests or career. Suddenly, there's little room for softer feelings. Anyone who stands in their way has to be taken down. The physicality may slip out, such as when Jesse Jackson, the long-time African-American alpha male expressed his feelings about the new kid on the block, Barack Obama. In surreptitiously taped comments on a 2008 television show Jackson said about Obama that he'd like to "cut his nuts off." At other times, things literally get physical, such as the way the head of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, reacted to hearing that one of his senior engineer of his company was going to work for his competitor. Ballmer was said to have picked up a chair, and throw it forcefully across the room, hitting a table. After this chimpanzee-like display, he launched into a tirade about how he was going to f***ing kill those Google boys.

Do men puzzle so much about the origin of altruism because their nurturing emotions are little developed? Do they have more trouble than women imagining themselves caring for others? To see how a female biologist tackles the origin of altruism read, for example, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's books. She traces human cooperation to the way our ancestors got together to raise children, involving not only women but also men. Out of this collective caring grew a cooperative society. It's a very different scenario from the one highlighted in The Price of Altruism, which pits altruism against selfishness and tries to find as much as possible of the latter in the former.

Not that we should not pay attention to this scenario. The men vividly featured in Harman's book have formulated a convincing alternative to the "right of the strongest" kind of biology that remains popular in certain conservative circles. As such, the book is highly relevant and informative: a real tour the force on a topic close to every biologist's heart.

Yet, we may be entering a new era of thinking, more focused on how altruism works than where it comes from. Many new titles on empathy and solidarity have come out over the past few years, including my own The Age of Empathy, which present altruism as a natural outgrowth of our species' intensely social psychological make-up, one that we share with all mammals, and possibly also birds.

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