What sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom? Alan Alda posed the question to a panel of five evolution experts, including E.O. Wilson, at the World Science Festival’s “What it Means to be Human: The Enigma of Altruism.” The sold-out event took place Friday night at New York University’s Skirball Center.
The panel included anthropologists, biologists, a political scientist, and a humanitarian. They engaged in a lively debate on the intersection of genes and culture in the evolution of altruism, the enigmatic human behavior of helping strangers that seems out of step with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Clips from Alan Alda’s upcoming PBS series, “The Human Spark,” fueled the discussion.
E.O. Wilson centered the conversation by posing questions to his colleagues on stage about the impetus of the “boom” in human cognitive and social abilities that allowed us to cooperate with others (and playfully correcting them when he thought they were wrong.)
Sarah Hrdy, an anthropologist at the UC Davis, suggested that cooperation started with the need to nurture children through a long childhood. “A mother without help wouldn’t be able to rear young and survive,” she said.
Symbols—flags, jewelry or other insignia—were discussed as another uniquely human trait that enable us to bond with people not in our families. “How do you explain 12 million New Yorkers not all killing each other like chimps?” said Rob Boyd, an anthropologist at UCLA.
How do we know that selfless acts aren’t motivated by personal gain? Dominic Johnson, an evolutionary biologist and political scientist at the University of Edinburgh, brought up the point that individuals stand to benefit from acting altruistically. If you help someone out, your reputation as a good person spreads—other people may be more willing to help you in the future.
Throughout the exchange, Alan Alda kept the crowd amused by cracking a few trademark jokes, topped off by the following: When Wilson made a digression into evolutionary selection theory in ants, Alda teased, “I guess if I can plug my new show, you can plug your new paper.”
Image: Courtesy of the World Science Festival