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Why Do Human Beings Do Good Things? The Puzzle of Altruism

Wednesday, January 11, 2017 15:14
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January 12th, 2017

By Steve Taylor, Ph.D

Guest writer for Wake Up World

In 2007, a construction worker named Wesley Autrey was standing on a subway platform in New York, when a young man nearby had an epileptic seizure and rolled on to the track. Hearing the approach of a train, Wesley Autrey impulsively jumped down to try to save the young man, only to realise that the train was approaching too fast. Instead, he jumped on top of the young man’s body and pushed him down into a drainage ditch between the tracks. The train operator saw them, but it was too late to stop: five cars of the train passed over their bodies. Miraculously, both of them were uninjured. Asked later by The New York Times why he had done it, Autrey said: ‘I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.”

The question of why human beings are sometimes prepared to risk their own lives to save others has puzzled philosophers and scientists for centuries. From an evolutionary point of view, altruism doesn’t seem to make any sense. According to the modern Neo-Darwinian view, human beings are basically selfish. After all, we are only really ‘carriers’ of thousands of genes, whose only aim is to survive and replicate themselves. We shouldn’t be interested in sacrificing ourselves for others, or even in helping others. It’s true that, in genetic terms, it’s not necessarily self-defeating for us to help people close to us, our relatives or distant cousins — they carry many of the same genes as us, and so helping them may help our genes to survive. But what about when we help people who have no relation to us, or even animals?


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