Are human beings inherently good or evil? This question has long be debated and was made most famous by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes. Both sociologists agreed that all men are created equal; however they greatly disagreed on the inherent nature of man. Hobbes argued that man is, by default, selfish and as a result, harmful to others. Rousseau argued the opposing more optimistic view point that man is by default a good being, but through the persuasion of their state or society has been influenced to perform acts of evil. It would seem that both men evaluated social interactions as their gauge for the capacity for good or evil in humans. A look into the science behind these social interactions may help sway this debate.
What monkeys can teach us about compassion
Six rhesus monkeys have been trained to pull chains to get food. At one point the seventh monkey, in full view of the others, gets a painful shock whenever one of them pulls for food. On seeing the pain of the shocked monkey, four of the rhesus monkeys start pulling a different chain, one that delivers less food to them but that inflicts no shock to the other monkey. The fifth monkey stops pulling any chain at all for five days, and the sixth monkey for twelve days – that is, both starve themselves to prevent shocking the seventh monkey.
Daniel Goleman PhD calls this instinctive compassion. Shockingly, in similar tests conducted with both lab rats and infants, both performed in the same altruistic manner as the monkeys. So is this proof humans are innately good?
From a neuroscience perspective I would say yes, humans are innately good, but with a twist. Hobbes argued that humans are selfish and that was the root of their evil. This is only partly correct. Remember the old brain, the brain that was concerned primarily with our own safety, the brain that we share with nearly every other mammal? That brain is selfish, and it serves us right to be so, other wise we would have been lost many thousands of years back in our evolution. What differentiates us from the other mammals is our mid brain (emotion) and our new brain (thought) that compliment our old brain. Since all three of these brains work together they are interconnected and by design allow us to feel what we see in other animals and people. Seeing discomfort makes us feel uncomfortable and because we don’t like feeling uncomfortable we can take steps to alleviate the other animals discomfort causing us to perform a good deed.
Back to the monkeys, you see when the six monkeys saw the seventh monkey being shocked they empathized and mirrored with the visible pain of the seventh monkey in their own brains. The six monkeys then thought about their own action options, and then acted by choosing less food or no food at all to keep the seventh monkey from pain. This is easily proved in a lab but it is not 100% in real time. I’ll explain in my future posts.
We’re no different than rhesus monkeys
I’ll end on this: A similarity that humans experience from time to time that reminds me of the very experiment with the rhesus monkeys. Have you ever been driving in your car on the expressway you accidentally cut off another drive and didn’t even realize you did so until the second you had actually done it? I’m guessing, yes, you have.
Here’s how the experience probably ended after you accidentally cut off the other driver. You either heard the irate honking of the other driver or you looked in your mirror and the car finally came out of your blind spot. Startled, you stop playing with whatever was distracting you, sit up straight, and as the other driver begins to pull up next to your car you make a dedicated effort keep looking ahead even though you can already feel that the person in the other car is staring at you with hatred and disgust. Like the rhesus monkeys you can’t stand seeing the pain or anger of another human because it triggers something in your own brain (mirror neurons) that causes a similar emotion, and especially because your action was the root of their anger. So your best option given the circumstances is to become the best driver you can be at that very moment while avoiding all visual contact to prevent the transmission of the other driver’s negative emotions.