Mixed greens

Optimism and the Ides of March

Posted 3/11/20

I have a lot of conversations about climate change, sometimes with scientists, educators or local officials but more often with engaged citizens who are just trying to figure out how we can invest …

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Mixed greens

Optimism and the Ides of March


I have a lot of conversations about climate change, sometimes with scientists, educators or local officials but more often with engaged citizens who are just trying to figure out how we can invest our efforts where they will do the most good. I have to say, I’m hearing a lot more pessimism these days, as if our collective confidence has been shaken. There’s been more than a touch of impending doom in recent news, including signs of accelerating warming in the climate data, dire updates about the West Antarctic sheet ice, new projections for coastal sea rise, the Australian wildfires, epic flooding in Britain and the federal government’s unprecedented rollback of important environmental protections. It feels like there is a giant gulf between what is needed and what we think we can realistically achieve. Add the COVID-19 outbreak and it’s no wonder our nerves are a bit shot.

 Does our angst arise from the scale of the global impacts and the scope of action that’s needed, or from our growing cynicism about human nature and our will to act? In an age of instant gratification, how do we motivate actions designed to avert harm 50, 20 or even just 10 years away? “We plant trees not for ourselves, but for the future generations,” says the ancient Roman poet Caecilius Statius. A Chinese proverb sounds a similar point, but through the rueful rearview mirror of regret: “No shade tree? Blame not the sun but yourself.” With nativism and political tribalism resurging around the world, can we revive enough sense of connectedness to act for common good before it’s too late?

As sometimes happens when I find myself pondering questions like these, a hopeful sign emerged last week—one of those random gifts that appear when most needed. It came in the form of a new study by researchers from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. Entitled “Altruistic food sharing behavior by human infants after a hunger manipulation,” the study was published in the open access journal Scientific Reports (www.bit.ly/altruisticinfants).

Working from a premise that altruistic behavior entails giving valuable benefits to others while incurring a personal cost, the researchers tested 100 infants aged 19 months to see whether they would spontaneously give away a desirable piece of food to a stranger. In the first experiment, the children witnessed an experimenter accidentally drop a blueberry or a piece of banana, grape, or strawberry (sweet, high value treats prized by children in this age group) onto a tray just out of reach of the adult. When the experimenter reached for the fruit but was unable to retrieve it, and made eye contact with the child, a significant number of the children (58 percent) picked up a fruit and promptly gave it to the experimenter. This trend held even when, in the second phase of the experiment, the youngsters were tested just prior to their next feeding, so that the fruit had heightened value for the infant. In their discussion of the results, the researchers pointed out that the experimenters took great care not to interact with the infants long enough to develop a sense of familiarity or kinship, and that the children were not rewarded for their generosity. They speculated on the importance of parental practices and values, sibling interaction and other factors that might “convey the expectation to infants that people tend to help others and may engender in children a generalized feeling of interpersonal obligation towards other humans in need.” They also considered that altruism might serve an evolutionary purpose: “By giving away food to strangers, individuals may promote dyadic [one to one] affiliation and group cohesion and thereby species success within the dynamic environment of evolutionary adaptation.”

Perhaps I am grasping at a mildly hopeful straw, but I found it both poignant and reassuring that 19-month-old infants act altruistically when confronted with the needs of others. Perhaps that sign of innate goodness is also a survival mechanism, a message from the future reminding us to care for each other for the sake of generations to come and to nurture what is best in ourselves.


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