By NICHOLAS WADE
What is the
essence of human nature? Flawed, say many theologians. Vicious and addicted to
warfare, wrote Hobbes. Selfish and in need of considerable improvement, think
are beginning to form a generally sunnier view of humankind. Their conclusions
are derived in part from testing very young children, and partly from comparing
human children with those of chimpanzees, hoping that the differences will
point to what is distinctively human.
surprising answer at which some biologists have arrived is that babies are
innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some
extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural
willingness to help.
When infants 18
months old see an unrelated adult whose hands are full and who needs assistance
opening a door or picking up a dropped clothespin, they will immediately help,
Michael Tomasello writes in “Why We
Cooperate,” a book published in October. Dr. Tomasello, a developmental
psychologist, is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary
Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
behavior seems to be innate because it appears so early and before many parents
start teaching children the rules of polite behavior.
safe to assume that they haven’t been explicitly and directly taught to do
this,” said Elizabeth Spelke, a developmental psychologist at Harvard. “On the
other hand, they’ve had lots of opportunities to experience acts of helping by
others. I think the jury is out on the innateness question.”
Tomasello finds the helping is not enhanced by rewards, suggesting that it is
not influenced by training. It seems to occur across cultures that have
different timetables for teaching social rules. And helping behavior can even
be seen in infant chimpanzees under the right experimental conditions. For all
these reasons, Dr. Tomasello concludes that helping is a natural inclination,
not something imposed by parents or culture.
help with information, as well as in practical ways. From the age of 12 months
they will point at objects that an adult pretends to have lost. Chimpanzees, by
contrast, never point at things for each other, and when they point for people,
it seems to be as a command to go fetch something rather than to share
For parents who
may think their children somehow skipped the cooperative phase, Dr. Tomasello
offers the reassuring advice that children are often more cooperative outside
the home, which is why parents may be surprised to hear from a teacher or coach
how nice their child is. “In families, the competitive element is in
ascendancy,” he said.
grow older, they become more selective in their helpfulness. Starting around
age 3, they will share more generously with a child who was previously nice to
them. Another behavior that emerges at the same age is a sense of social norms.
“Most social norms are about being nice to other people,” Dr. Tomasello said in
an interview, “so children learn social norms because they want to be part of
only feel they should obey these rules themselves, but also that they should
make others in the group do the same. Even 3-year-olds are willing to enforce
social norms. If they are shown how to play a game, and a puppet then joins in
with its own idea of the rules, the children will object, some of them
Where do they
get this idea of group rules, the sense of “we who do it this way”? Dr.
Tomasello believes children develop what he calls “shared intentionality,” a
notion of what others expect to happen and hence a sense of a group “we.” It is
from this shared intentionality that children derive their sense of norms and
of expecting others to obey them.
intentionality, in Dr. Tomasello’s view, is close to the essence of what
distinguishes people from chimpanzees. A group of human children will use all
kinds of words and gestures to form goals and coordinate activities, but young
chimps seem to have little interest in what may be their companions’ minds.
If children are
naturally helpful and sociable, what system of child-rearing best takes
advantage of this surprising propensity? Dr. Tomasello says that the approach
known as inductive parenting works best because it reinforces the child’s
natural propensity to cooperate with others. Inductive parenting is simply
communicating with children about the effect of their actions on others and
emphasizing the logic of social cooperation.
altruistic by nature,” he writes, and though they are also naturally selfish,
all parents need do is try to tip the balance toward social behavior.