Monday, June 24, 2013

Why do good?

I realize that I'm running the risk here of coming off as "Look how truly wonderful I am" with this post, but I'm genuinely trying to explore an idea here, so if it comes off that way, I apologize.  I've been putting it off for months now, partially out of fear that it might come off as bragging, but I've decided to finally go for it - part of it was inspired by a post made by Justin McRoberts on his blog.  Please note that I'm not writing this as a sort of counter-point or retort to his.  It's just that the subjects are related, and while my thoughts might contrast with his, this is not intended to be a rebuttal.  Okay, enough with the preamble:

Several months ago, I was going for a walk through my neighborhood park, and as per my usual routine, I had my son Logan in the stroller and my dog Freyja on a leash.  (I think it's better that way than the other way around.)  Right as we got in, we came across an older fella who had fallen down on the ground.  There was a teenage kid trying to help him get back up, but it looked like he could use some assistance.  So, I went  to help the old guy out.  A couple of women who were jogging in the park assisted as well.

Basically what we had was the two ladies took my dog, we had the old guy push the stroller with one hand (to help steady himself) while taking his other arm and putting it over my shoulder.  The teenager walked on the other side, helping to correct the old guy as he would occasionally lose his balance.

There's lots more to the story, as the old guy wanted to drive home, and I had to prevent him from getting into his car while we waited over an hour for emergency services to show up.  Maybe one day I'll fill in the gaps, but suffice it to say, my son was witness to his father and a bunch of strangers helping an old guy out.  Honestly, I'm not too sure that Logan was really aware of just what was going on though.  It's hard to tell with little guys (He's going to be three in August, and he was closer to two and a half when this happened.)  Basically one of the ladies was playing with him while I was getting ready to physically restrain the old guy from getting into his car.  Logan didn't seem too concerned about it one way or another.

Flash forward to a recent incident at Logan's preschool.  A little girl fell off her bike.  Logan's reaction was to help her up and call for a teacher to assist.  He then walked the girl over to the bench to sit down and asked the teacher for some ice for the girl's wound.

While I think this is awesome, I suppose it's not too strange.  I'm sure he had seen the teachers behave in a similar fashion, so he was probably emulating them in some way.  And who knows?  Maybe something did penetrate his mind when I helped that one old guy out.  It's hard to say, but what made him want to go and help that little girl out in the first place?  From what I understand, it's not like all the kids were rushing up to her assistance.  The teacher even commented on his behavior as it wasn't the kind of thing that she sees often in kids his age.

But even if he is emulating behavior, which is something that's common of pretty much every mammal of which I'm aware, I can't help but think of another story involving him.  This goes back to when he was a bit younger, and those with little ones know, a few months can make a huge difference, but this was when he hadn't even reached two years old yet, and it involves another walk in the park.

Sometimes, Logan likes to get out of the stroller and explore.  On one of these occasions, we came across an elderly Asian man who was gathering acorns.  Logan walked up to see what was going on and tried talking to the man.  The man just smiled a bit, but couldn't make out Logan's jibber-jabber.  So, he continued to gather the acorns in a plastic bag that he had on the ground.  Logan then took it upon himself to go looking around for acorns and place them in the man's bag.  The man smiled, but didn't talk much (out of being laconic or having a limited English vocabulary, I'm not sure).

I spent about fifteen minutes watching Logan assist the man.  Sometimes his acorns were rejected, as obviously the guy wanted them to be of a certain quality, but for the most part, the man kept what my son found for him.  While I don't like to rush Logan when he's exploring, eventually I do want to get going - especially during the summer months when the heat keeps rising - so I finally said it was time to get going.  When we departed, Logan just waved goodbye (and got one in return) and climbed back into his stroller.  He didn't want to take any of the acorns with him, which is what I feared.  He just wanted to help the guy out.

I have no explanation where I can point to the behavior of myself, my wife, or anybody else who's close to him that puts that incident into perspective.  He didn't know that man, and it was unlikely that he would confuse him with any of his relatives.  He also had never been around somebody who gathered acorns either.  He simply observed what the guy was doing and decided that he'd be of assistance.

Perhaps I've got new-dad syndrome or something, but I have to say that with both incidents, I have two thoughts:  1.  I'm really damned proud and 2.  How do I nurture this behavior and not screw it up?

The second thought is probably what occupies my mind the most.  While I cannot explain his behavior in terms of simply emulating what he's seen, I still have no problem with attributing it to a natural explanation.  We human beings are a communal species.  Since we don't have the strength, speed, or camouflage of other mammals, we had to work together in order to survive.  Just as you see our fellow primates doing things that benefit the group and/or other individuals in the group, being helpful is a trait that makes us more likely to survive.  Sure, some people are more altruistic than others, but the point is that you see that more often than you see people stabbing each other in the back; otherwise, we wouldn't have gotten very far.

In other words, I do not find it any less wonderful and heartwarming to see my son's behavior and point to evolution as the reason for why he has it in him.  And no, do not substitute the word "random" for "evolution".  That could be another blog post, but suffice it to say, evolution is pretty much the opposite of being random - we inherited these traits because they helped us to survive.  It's what makes us human beings, and some of us get more of the really beneficial traits than others.

When I think of why I helped out that one old guy who fell down, it's not that I did a lengthy analysis in my head as to why I should help.  I suppose if I already saw several people walking him to a bench, I'd probably just go:  "Looks like they've got this covered."  I know that I've certainly done this in the past, as I've watched others help people in need, and I basically just kept back because I figured by that point, I'd just start to get in the way.  But with this one, at that moment, it looked like if I didn't do something, that teenager wasn't going to be able to help the guy.  If I have to think about it, I did something for the simple reason that the thought of me living in a world where old men can fall down and just lie there is a particularly horrid one - no doubt partially because one day I could very well find myself as an old man who falls down in a public park.  Still, the thought of a little girl falling down and not being helped bothers me as much.

But just as my son's behavior was instinctive, so was mine.  I'm the same product of millions of years of natural selection, and I belong to a species where for the better part of our history, helping one another meant the difference between our survival or us joining the dinosaurs.  This is why we humans even have a notion of what's good and what's bad in the first place.  I know that some people like to look to a supernatural and/or religious reasoning, but from what I've sussed out, those sorts of answers only add an unnecessarily convoluted layer to something where we already have an explanation that doesn't require it.

I also know that some people would find my explanation to be "sad" (actual word used to describe my point of view by some religious believers) or maybe even lacking a sense of amazement at the world.  I dunno.  When I think of my son helping a man pick up acorns, and I realize that this instinct can be traced back to our hunter/gatherer ancestors who had to help each other to continue the species, I feel amazingly connected to the rest of humanity.  When strangers have helped me out, they acted out of the same instinct that I did.  Who knows?  Considering that we're all related if you go back far enough, it could be that Logan was returning a favor from millions of years ago.  If that doesn't give you a sense of awe at who we are and how we got to be here, then I don't know what does.


Justin McRoberts said...

I love this story. So good.

Where you and I differ, I think.. is when you say "we had to work together in order to survive".. Not because that isn't historically/anthropologically true,.. but that it doesn't really factor into my decision making when I'm choosing actions. And when I evaluate those actions (mine or someone else's) after the fact,.. it's something other (better?) than survival I'm romanced by.

"my son's behavior was instinctive, so was mine" Likely… mostly? In part? But so were the actions of the jackass who recently beat up a friend of mine (who happened to be his wife). Anger, rage, violence.. all natural and tied to instinct.

I get that all those elements (kindness, unkindness, liking Star Trek more than Star Wars etc… ) are "in us" after "millions of years of natural selection" .. but in my estimation, calling one thing good and another bad (or evil) seems to step somewhere outside the "natural." A lot like musical theatre.

Lance Johnson said...

I hear what you're saying, but for me the sticking point comes down to why a one and a half year old would stop what he's doing just to help an old guy gather acorns. I don't think that he gave it much thought before or after - he just did it. It's only us adults who have the ability to analyze it after the fact.

Tony from Pandora said...

Kids are awesome. They really can surprise you with their perspective/insight on the world... my kids seem to teach me as much as I teach them.

I had a big long response, but you specified you did not intend this post to be a 'rebuttal', so I won't try to rebut your non-rebuttal... I'm just glad parents like you are involved in the details of your kids' lives, wanting to nurture their decision making for the better... too many parents these days don't...

Lance Johnson said...

Unfortunately, I think that the problem of bad parenting goes back a long time. While many people can break the cycle, oftentimes people are bad parents because they never had a good role model to begin with.

Oh, and further to Justin's comment, as this occurred to me when I woke up this morning: I think that our desire to figure out what's good and what's bad comes from the very same place that makes us do selfless acts in the first place. Intrinsically, we want what's best for the species, so that's where the dialogue comes from.

Tony from Pandora said...

"Intrinsically, we want what's best for the species, so that's where the dialogue comes from."

I agree that helping the old man is doing what's best. But why do I believe that?

Is helping the old man doing 'what's best for the species?" Why? Why would leaving him there be any less valid decision instinctively? If you're being chased by a predator, you and the ladies helping the old man gets you all killed. Have we simply evolved passed that self preservation instinct? Why does the instinct to help override the instinct for self preservation? Helping someone drown may kill both me and the bad swimmer, while not helping ensures my survival. Why does the seemingly weaker instinct to help compel me more than the instinct that most ensures my safety?

I think the answer falls somewhere with Justin's comment that 'calling one thing good and another bad (or evil) seems to step somewhere outside the "natural".'

Lance Johnson said...

Why is it best to help an old man? It's not so much that, but it's best to help people for the fact that we're a cooperative species. For the same reason that a mother dog will nurse an abandoned squirrel baby, instincts don't necessarily step back and rationalize things.

As for stepping outside of what's "natural", that only creates a new bag of problems and answers nothing.

Tony from Pandora said...

I've seen a mother dog eat a baby rabbit. I was in the 3rd grade. The baby rabbit made this HORRIBLE scream... maybe she was just a bad dog...

"Instincts don't necessarily step back and rationalize things."

I whole-heartedly agree.

"it's best to help people for the fact that we're a cooperative species."

I think that statement is backwards. If you mean to say, "Because we have an innate desire to help each other, we call ourselves a cooperative species." I can get on board with that... otherwise, I'll defer to Justin's comment when he says, "[working together]... doesn't factor into my decision making when I'm choosing actions. And when I evaluate those actions (mine or someone else's) after the fact,.. it's something other (better?) than survival I'm romanced by."

Lance Johnson said...

Regarding the dog and the rabbit, that's instinct as well - in this case, the instincts one would expect from a predator. Instincts aren't guided by some sort of force that keeps them consistent.

"it's something other (better?) than survival I'm romanced by"

I would say that our instincts do a good job of fooling you into thinking that this is the case.

As for the whole "cooperative species" thing, that's just a simple definition with which we fit. We're not like coyotes or tigers. We're like most of the other apes, lions, wolves, etc. in that we work together to ensure survival of the species.

Matthew Holderfield said...

Lance, why does it all have to be explained by "instinct" through inheritance? Can't culture and philosophy contribute? It seems to me that you and your son (through you and the books you read to him) are the products of thousands of years of "social" evolution (not necessarily genetic, though I agree that genetics likely account for some of what you describe).

Lance Johnson said...


"why does it all have to be explained by "instinct" through inheritance?"

It doesn't!

"Can't culture and philosophy contribute? It seems to me that you and your son...are the products of thousands of years of "social" evolution."

I agree - good point. I guess I would just say that our social evolution is a byproduct of how genetic evolution has wired us, if that makes sense.

I certainly didn't mean to exclude that influence though.