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Are Infants Born Kind? New Research Says Yes

The trouble is, the research is haunted by conflicting definitions of altruism
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Researchers recently found that even very young children will share, contrary to accepted wisdom that they can think only of themselves:

In a study of nearly 100 19-month-olds, researchers found that children, even when hungry, gave a tasty snack to a stranger in need. The findings not only show that infants engage in altruistic behavior, but also suggest that early social experiences can shape altruism…

For this study, researchers chose kid-friendly fruits — including bananas, blueberries and grapes — and set up an interaction between child and researcher. The goal: to determine whether the child would, without encouragement, verbal instruction or reinforcement, spontaneously give an appealing food to an unfamiliar person.

University of Washington, “Altruistic babies? Infants are willing to give up food, help others” at ScienceDaily

More than half of them did. In doing so, they differed from chimpanzees: “But nonhuman primates, such as chimpanzees, don’t actively hand over delicious food that they need themselves.”

One difficulty with research of this kind is that there are two different definitions of “altruism” out there:

Here’s Merriam-Webster: altruism: unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others; charitable acts motivated purely by altruism

That’s clearly a definition aimed at describing human behavior. It presupposes rational reflection on the needs of others.

However, as used in animal behavior studies, “altruism” means something different. Here’s Merriam-Webster: again: altruism: behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species

The second definition makes no assumption about awareness, motive, or ethics. It could be a blind behavior pattern that enables more members of the species to survive and reproduce. So which definition do the researchers mean to apply to children less than two years old?

The work of mid-twentieth century biologist W. D. Hamilton (1936–2000) forms the basis of the second definition and, among evolutionary biologists, is called kin (or group) selection:

Hamilton concluded that altruism was passed down the generations because the trait benefited the fitness of an organism’s “relatives”. “Hamilton is famous for working on the evolution of altruism and explaining altruism in terms of kin selection,” adds Dr Andy Gardner, another of the play’s scientific advisers and a biologist at the University of St Andrews. “So individuals nepotistically being altruistic towards their relatives because they share genes in common with those individuals.” In other words, as Grafen puts it, “[Hamilton] claimed to have shown that indeed natural selection, if it affects social behaviour, can cause organisms to behave in a way that looks altruistic, but actually it is genetically selfish.”

Nicola Davis, “The man who proved that altruism is selfish” at The Guardian

This “inclusive fitness” theory (1932 onward) was put forward to plug a hole in evolutionary thinking at the time. But it has since degenerated into a paper war or, as John Gray put it at The New Republic, “an exercise in sectarian intellectual warfare of the kind that is so often fought in and around Darwinism.”

So, in trying to understand the research, we face a choice: Either human infants, unlike chimpanzees, show apparent intellectual qualities like compassion earlier than we might have expected. That’s altruism 1. On that view, adult humans can show altruism (compassion, empathy, philanthropy) as a reasoned choice, whether or not it enables the survive of genes. If so, we must accept that humans are fundamentally different from chimpanzees.

In that case, the simplest explanation for infant altruism is that infants learn to model the behavior of their own human caregivers earlier than we previously thought—with significant consequences for child care theory.

Alternatively, there is some unknown way that infants are naturally selected by evolution to spread the genes of humans other than themselves. This theory, altruism 2, is controversial even for animals, in part because the mechanism seems unclear. For one thing, if human infants simply evolved that way, why didn’t chimpanzees?

It’s only fair to wonder, to which definition do the researchers subscribe? Further research in this area may shed some light—and create interesting conundrums—about infant behavior.

Note: The paper, (Barragan, R.C., Brooks, R. & Meltzoff, A.N. Altruistic food sharing behavior by human infants after a hunger manipulation. Sci Rep 10, 1785 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-58645-9) is open access.

The image above is from AnoushkaToronto via Adobe Stock.

Further reading: Babies have a number sense before they can count. The study showed that counting with babies makes a difference, even though their understanding is not very exact.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Are Infants Born Kind? New Research Says Yes