Only human after all

More from the frontiers of the Science of Altruism. A recent article by the American Sociological Association debunks the myth of widespread panic during disasters. You know, like in the movies when people knock down their own grandmothers in panicked attempts to get away from some sort of danger. The society finds from a study of actual behavior in actual disaster situations that people collaborate and are generally altruistic in life-threatening situations. When the chips are down, we tend to team up. This accounts for all the platitudes about September 11th and how it “brought the nation together.” Sometimes the platitudes are true.

Add to this a new book which engages scientists, psychologists, sociologists, and theologians in a study of Altruistic Love. This is a growing school of thought opposing the conventional evolutionary wisdom that humans are motivated, even in apparent cases of altruism, by self-centered goals. There may indeed be at the core of our humanity a knack for unselfish love.

I’ve said this before, but it’s appropos here. I hate it when people tell Heidi and I that we are some kind of “saints” for opening our home to underpriviledged children. Okay, I don’t “hate” it — they’re only trying to be nice — but it makes me uncomfortable.

In saying such things, people imply that you gotta be some sort of extraordinary person to act selflessly. “Y’all are so good. I could never do that,” they say. Yes you could, and we are no better than anyone else. We don’t do it because we’re saints, we do it because we’re “only human.”

I’m used to hearing “only human” or “human nature” to euphemistically describe human failings and weakness — to refer to that part of us that is not the Godly part of us. I think we need to switch it around and use the term “Human Nature” to refer to that part of us that *is* Godly. We need to step up to our heritage as sons and daughters of the Divine. It is our selfishness and hatred which is unhuman, not the other way around.

And now there’s a growing school of scientific and academic thought that’s backing me up. It’d be nice if we could reverse the centuries-old mental paradigm of social darwinism and self-interested action and redefine our own humanity. I’m not being all Pollyanna-ish here and saying that people are not selfish and mean often enough. But in my mind, that’s sub-human behavior, not Human Nature. We need to expect more from ourselves. We are, indeed, “Only Human.” But that’s a *good* thing.

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