Monday, March 26, 2012

Reflections on altruism

In an earlier post, I wrote of my mother's involvement in human rights issues.  Over the weekend I attended a reception for EMERGENCY, a group of doctors who provide care for civilians in war torn parts of the world.  I have long thought about becoming involved in such work, with this organization as well as others.  I remember trying to volunteer in Bosnia, where I had visited years earlier, as the war heated up.  I said that I was a fully trained, though relatively newly minted neurosurgeon, and that I had studied two Slavic languages, so picking up a third did not seem too daunting.  I also told the organizations that I had no family from any part of the former Yugoslavia, so I "didn't have a dog in the fight" there.  It didn't work out then, but I still find myself drawn to such involvement.  Much of the time since I have worked with underserved populations here in the US.  Many other relatives have also done this, whether in health care or education.

As I was driving back in the rain after the reception, I thought also of the story of one of my mother's cousins who had a pharmacy in the area of Krakow that was to become the ghetto under the Nazis.  He lived above the pharmacy, so both his business and home were there.  As the ghetto was being closed off, Christians were ordered to leave.  He initially boarded a streetcar to leave, then decided to return, because that was where he felt he belonged.  He stayed there and did what he could to help those who were forced to live in the ghetto.  When the ghetto was emptied and the residents were sent to death camps, he fully expected to be killed as well.  After all, he knew that the penalty for a Pole who helped a Jew was death.  But, somehow he survived and later wrote a book, The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy.  His name was Tadeusz Pankiewicz, and he was later honored by Yad Vashem for his activities.  I have a vague recollection of him though certainly recall hearing his story from his daughter as my mother and I were leaving Poland.  At the time he was being denied an exit visa to visit Israel.  So, I wanted to go there to take photos to send to him.

I began to wonder why so many people in my family had stories like this.  Then I recalled that I had heard about some reseach a few years back about a so-called altruism gene.  Apparently there are variants of the oxytocin receptor which are more or less associated with altruistic behavior.  This makes some sense in that oxytocin is also involved in maternal bonding.  It is the hormone that allows women to breast feed.  Clearly, the decision to care for a helpless infant is an altruistic act, though there are also elements of selfishness in the desire to pass on one's own genes.  It also makes sense that a gene of this sort would potentially lead to increased survival of infants whose mothers carry it and thus might be carried on in a population.

Other studies suggest that altruism has more to do with how an individual sees the world.  And if the right posterior superior temporal cortex lights up differently during action perception vs. action performance.  Danusha Goska, author of Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture, even suggests that "Polish Catholic peasants, in accord with Polish, Catholic, peasant values, did good things."  I do think that this last point has some validity, since Catholicism does value caring for others.

My sense is that the truth is closest to the last.  That this is more of an environmentally influenced trait.  I certainly have felt that I have to try to do what I can to help others, since I have been relatively well off.  A sort of noblesse oblige.  I think that knowing about the heroes in my family just makes it seem all the more necessary to give to others since they gave so much with so much less than I have enjoyed.  I hope that I can live up to the expectations.


  1. A very interesting, insightful post! Thank you very much, Margaret! I liked the balanced two-side view of the the altruism. I liked it even more that you opted for the altruism of non-genetic origin. With the altruistic genes, I would have some concerns: it is too predestinarian, and there were loving mothers who could be quite cruel with children who were not theirs. I think that altruism may be gradable.

  2. Margaret, thank you very much for citing my work. Forgive me but in this context I feel compelled to mention my new book, "Save Send Delete."

    "Save Send Delete" is an account of a debate and a love affair I had with a celebrity atheist. He was prominent in the media insisting that there is no God, no soul, no free will, no precognition, nothing but material reality.

    He would very much like the altruism gene argument -- in fact, he has advanced it himself.

    Why? Because if all human behavior can be reduced to material reality -- in this case genes -- there is no need to invoke God and God's gift to humanity, free will. No such thing. Also no such thing as goodness or badness or virtue or sin.

    In "Letters to Olga," Vaclav Havel talks about the communist insistence on material reality as the only reality.

    Me? I believe in God, I believe in choice, I believe in goodness and badness and virtue and sin.

    I've been lucky enough to be exposed to many traditional societies and peasant populations, and traditional societies often put a huge emphasis on hospitality. You are giving and sheltering of strangers traveling through. You do this because your ancestors did it, and it is the right thing to do.

    Catholicism has numerous stories supporting this. One of the most famous is the story of St. Francis and the leper. St. Francis kisses a leper -- and realizes that he is kissing Jesus. That's how the story was passed on to me.

    The Ulma family bible shows that they knew such stories and attended to them.

  3. Thanks for your comments Margot and Danusha. I do think this is largely a choice. Upbringing and religion teach us how to behave. Many religions teach us to help each other. We all must learn to heed that teaching.