Almost three years ago, Covid-19 began to manifest itself as a global, historical turning point. Since then, its far-reaching consequences have been analyzed and written about in much detail. Despite an abundance of insightful pandemic stories on an institutional as well individual level, I feel compelled to provide one more personal anecdote. Not because I’m looking for praise for the few hours of weekly voluntary work I that I’m doing since then. But because the fact that an egocentric person like myself would suddenly feel an unshakable urge to give something back to society at precisely this moment in history highlights a fascinating, and often overlooked, aspect of human nature: Our innate desire to help others, even if that goes against our own selfish interests.
Here’s the gist of my story: Due to bad planning (and some bad luck) I unexpectedly found myself out of a job in March of 2020. My unemployment benefits were so exorbitantly high though, that I was actually ashamed to even admit to anyone just how much money I was being payed for doing nothing at all. And that at a time when some of my closest friends were struggling day and night to keep their businesses afloat, their families safe, and their children educated (or at least entertained).
Note that I’m not an altruistic person per se. I was raised in the simple belief that “if only everyone took care of themselves, then everyone would be cared for.” Giving money to charity or volunteering for non-profits were not part of my living reality, or that of my parents, when I grew up. Furthermore, my tendency towards introversion, exacerbated by a fondness for inherently solitary activities like reading, writing, running, or meditating should have made my course of action for the foreseeable future a no-brainer: Sit back, lay low, let the government take care of it, and do what you always wanted to do anyway (e.g., write a book).
But as appealing as this sounded to the rational part of my brain, there was something in me that was in rebellion against the idea. Despite my better judgement, and against my own best interest, my hand was reaching for my phone almost reflexively—as if it had developed a life of its own. And all of a sudden, it was typing out and email to the head of our local Red Cross branch, asking if they happened to need any help.
And help they needed indeed.
Long story short, I ended up spending most Saturday afternoons throughout 2020 in a dusty garage, sorting, grading, and packing groceries that were close to (or beyond) their shelf life, but still useful for our food bank program. Together with a wonderful team of other volunteers, and under the guidance of one the best leaders I’ve ever worked for, week after week we distributed over a ton of food to families in need. Contrary to my prior academic and professional achievements though, there was no trace of personal glory in this. I was just another face hidden behind a mask, doing simple, strenuous physical labor. But the sense of camaraderie that pervaded our team, as well as the gratitude we received from many of our clients, infused those dull hours of mechanical work with a special kind of meaning that I had not previously known. And that I’ll probably savor for the rest of my life.
My experience, as baffling as it was to me at the time, is in no way exceptional. History has shown again and again that whenever disaster strikes, people instinctively engage in pro-social behavior. It’s almost as if human beings came with a hard-wired desire for collaboration and altruism which could could be activated through large-scale calamities.
Examples for this idea, of course, are manifold: The people of Britain famously withstood the horrific bombings of their cities during World War II because they worked together across social and class differences. Even Queen Elisabeth famously pitched in and drove an ambulance, for example. Fast-forward a few decades and consider the heart-warming stories of generosity towards (and amongst) the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Or how the Ukrainian people responded to Russias war of aggression in 2022 by standing together. Or, right now, the tireless efforts of the Turkish diaspora in Europe to provide aid for those affected by the devastating 2023 earthquakes.
Of course, I’m not the first one to notice this effect. Writer and activist Rebecca Solnit, in “Hope in the Dark”, says that “in most disasters most people are calm, resourceful, altruistic, and creative”. Historian Rutger Bregmann, in “Human Kind” argues the exact same thing and underpins the idea with countless contradicting the prevailing notion that human beings are innately selfish or even cruel. And David Graeber and David Wengrow, in “The Dawn of Everything”, even point to a much longer history of human cooperation that we would intuitively have assumed.
But the most fascinating, and unexpected, piece of supporting evidence for this hypothesis may come from the Bible. This is not to say that the “good” book is actually a testimonial to human goodness—quite the contrary is true. What’s interesting is the very need for humans to write a book like the Old Testament, with its angry and wrathful God, its violent patriarchs, its selfish kings, and its dubious prophets, in the first place. The fact that we needed such colorful stories, and the moral framework that came with them, points to something fundamental: A mismatch between the psychological traits that Homo Sapiens had developed as hunter-gatherers and the reality of life in the Bronze Age.
The evolutionary biologist Carel van Schaik and the historian Kai Michel, in “Das Tagebuch der Menschheit”, have dissected the Bible from an evolutionary point of view and crafted an elaborate argument: The primary purpose of the Bible was for humans to be able to cope with living under conditions totally different than those we had evolved in.
Human beings, they argue, have three different “natures”: Our first nature contains the collective wisdom we acquired over the many tens of thousands of years which we spent as a species of nomadic hunter-gatherers. We were then living in small, mostly egalitarian bands that were not hierarchically structured. Pro-social behavior, which benefitted the survival of the group, was thus etched deeply into our brains by the long process of biological evolution through natural selection: Those who were acting in the best interest of their tribe had a better chance of passing on their genes to the next generation than the selfish loners. Repeat that a few hundred times and you will end up with a species for which it comes natural that everyone helps out everyone else.
Needless to say, the way people lived in the middle east throughout the first millennium BCE, when most of the Old Testament was put into writing, was vastly different: Society was no longer restricted to small groups in which everyone knew everyone else, but organized in much larger large, anonymous villages. Egalitarianism had been replaced by hierarchical structures with chiefs or kings at the top. The domestication of animals and the development of agriculture had led to a surge in disease. And neither our physiology nor our psychology had had any time to adapt to those changes.
It was this environment, according to van Schaik and Michel, that led to the rise of what they call our second nature: Cultural rules, norms and practices which helped us navigate these unfamiliar, because unnatural, conditions. The Bible in general, and its ten commandments and 613 Mitzvot in particular, thus served the purpose of teaching people the do’s and don’ts of a way of living that they were not inherently used to. And, of course, they had to be transferred explicitly, via cultural evolution from one generation to the next, because biological evolution was much too slow to keep up.
The third and final nature in van Schaik and Michel’s framework is made up of another sphere of rules and norms, but such we create individually for ourselves. These are layered on top of the other two and contain our personal preferences, values, and ethics. One’s choice to live an eco-friendly life, for example, or adhering to a personal routine or workout regimen.
Of course, those three natures can, and often do, come in conflict with each other: It’s part of our instinctive first nature, for example, to crave sugary foods. It’s the rules we set for ourselves as part of our third nature that nevertheless make us not eat the whole cake at once. Exactly these types of struggle between what our first nature wants us to do what our second, cultural nature tells us is the right thing to do, and what we individually know we should do, that create stressful cognitive dissonance and which requires willpower to overcome.
And here’s where the circle between altruistic and self-serving behavior closes: It’s a core part of our first nature to want to help each other out. It’s in our genes. It’s what made this species survive and thrive for at least a hundred thousand years. But culturally and individually, we’ve learned to suppress that desire, and often for good reason: In this day and age, it’s not just the problems of the 50 or so people in my immediate surrounding that I’m exposed to, but the suffering of millions of people all over the planet. If I were to want to help everyone who is in trouble all of the time, I would tear myself apart. We have learned, culturally and individually, to deal with this evolutionary mismatch by telling ourselves something along the lines of “there is nothing we can do” or “somebody else will take care of it”—despite feeling a small tinge of a troubled conscience provided by our first nature every now and again.
But when an unexpected or enormous disaster strikes, be that in the form of an earthquake, a hurricane, a war, or a pandemic, our natural tendency to want to provide help for those in need can erupt very suddenly. This force—literally, a force of nature—is what made me reach of my phone in 2020. It’s what drives people to collect donations, to organize aid stations, to give to charities, or to try to help in a million other ways.
Human beings, as Rutger Bregman argues, really are kind by nature. And it’s actually quite wonderful to observe how time and time again, this kindness manages to shatter the thin layer of individualistic selfishness that’s created by cultural evolution. It’s nice to know that, if bad comes to worse, we’re ready to be there for one another. Still, I find it baffling that it took me a pandemic, and a lot of reading and reflection, to reach that conclusion myself.