Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Fort McMurray and the Roots of Human Kindness

Humans are full of surprises. If you watch the news, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that humans are the worst animals on two legs. We can be petty, selfish, mean, and violent. We wage wars, pollute the environment, and oppress one another for financial gain. But every so often something happens that allows us to glimpse the real nature of what it means to be human, and the results are among the most beautiful things on the planet.

Last week, in Canada, a wildfire ripped through the Northern end of the province of Alberta. Wildfires are a common occurrence in the boreal forest, but this one was unique for a few reasons. First, it was early; the temperatures under which the fire ignited were dry and incredibly warm (32 C compared to the average daily high for early May of about 16 C). Second, wind and very low humidity caused the fire to grow and move very quickly. Sometime on Tuesday, the flames arrived at the city of Fort McMurray, home to over 80,000 people. The fire ripped through neighbourhoods, destroying buildings and possessions along the way. By Wednesday morning, over 1,600 buildings had burned and some neighbourhoods lost 90% of houses. Shockingly, one thing that wasn’t lost was a single human life.

The evacuation of Fort McMurray was nearly as shocking as the fire that necessitated it. Nearly 100,000 people fled the city peacefully and relatively safely. Even still, cars and trucks clogged the only route out of the city as fire engulfed the forest all around. What made this possible was a human trait that has puzzled scientists for years: co-operation.

When the chips are down, as they were and continue to be for the people of Fort McMurray, few animals come together as comprehensively and effectively as humans do. As people ran out of gas on the highway, others shared jerry-cans they had with them. As fire victims made their way to shelters in Edmonton, Syrian refugees, who had only landed in the country months earlier with no possessions, gave anything they had to help. Even the beer company Labatt’s shut down their brewery to can drinking water for victims. Across Canada, tens of millions of dollars in aid have been collected. How can a species with such a mean streak in one context, be so generous in another?

There are many theories about human altruism but they all boil down to the idea of selection. Most people are familiar with Charles Darwin’s idea of natural selection, but on the face of it, helping someone out seems to be counter-productive. If there are more people around to compete for resources, logic suggests it would be harder for each individual to survive. But, selection also acts on groups, and those who work together stand a better chance of survival in the long run, compared to groups made up of people who can’t stand each other.

Some anthropologists believe that the human tendency to help out strangers, whom we see as being part of our larger social group, is what led to the development of our cultures and languages. As we worked together, it became more and more useful to have ways to connect and communicate with people we had never met before, for the good of the group.

Humans aren’t entirely alone on the altruism front, however. New research comparing us to other primates has shown that some species of monkey are also willing to lend a hand to those in need. Researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland compared several species of primate with respect to their willingness to give food to other members of their same species. They looked at 15 species in total, including marmosets and tamarins, lemurs, spider monkeys, capuchin monkeys, macaques, chimps, and human children ranging from 5 to 7 years old. What they found was that the species who were most likely to give food to someone else were also the ones who engage in something called cooperative breeding.

Cooperative breeding is the idea that when a baby is born, many adult members of the social group help to care for it, not just its parents. Animals that evolve the tendency to offer free childcare tend to live in rough situations. When resources become scarce, birds have been known to be cooperative breeders and the same is thought to have happened to our human ancestors as they came out of the trees in Africa and began life on the Savannah, where lions and their ilk made life way more dangerous. The upshot of cooperative breeding is that adults don’t have to wait until their babies are fully independent before having their next brood, resulting in better reproductive success for everyone in the group.

The plains of Africa are a long way from the boreal forest of Canada, but human cooperation appears to be geographically transferable. The people of Fort McMurray have a long way to go to get back on their feet, but at least they can know that their neighbours and millions of years of social evolution have got their backs.

Anyone wishing to help the relief efforts can donate to the Canadian Red Cross. Our hearts are with the people of Fort McMurray during this difficult time.