Are Random Acts of Kindness Part of Human Nature?

Random acts of kindness, and the drive behind them, may be the key to our survival as a species.

a child expressing some measure of joy

Random acts of kindness may not be as unpredictable as they seem, the author argues. In fact, a sense of altruism may be hard-wired into the basics of human nature, and is invaluable to our potential for growth as a species.

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Survival of the Nicest (The Experiment, 2014) turns the tables on one of our most entrenched assumptions. While "survival of the fittest" may conjure up an image of cutthroat individuals clawing their way to the top, author Stefan Klein illustrates that altruism has played a pivotal role in our evolution. Our best chance at surviving—and thriving—as a species requires that we work together for one another's benefit, Klein argues. In this selection from the introduction, the author asks what it is that makes one become a hero, and if random acts of kindness are a shared drive in our human nature.

The Nature Behind Random Acts of Kindness

I have received in a Manchester Newspaper a rather good squib, showing that I have proved “might is right,” & therefore that Napoleon is right & every cheating Tradesman is also right.
Charles Darwin

Wesley Autrey was waiting for the subway in New York City with his two little daughters when the young man next to him suddenly began to shake, went into convulsions, fell on his back, and began to wave his arms and legs like an overturned beetle. There were perhaps a hundred people on the crowded platform, but most of them looked the other way. Besides Autrey, only two women rushed over to help, but Autrey was faster. With great presence of mind he asked for a ballpoint pen and jammed it between the young man’s teeth so he couldn’t bite his tongue during the epileptic seizure. After a short time, the convulsions lessened and stopped, the young man got up, and Autrey thought he would be able to continue on his way.

A rumble and the glare of a headlight announced the arrival of the train. At that moment, the epileptic began to stagger again. He stumbled to the edge of the platform, lost his balance, and fell onto the tracks. Autrey asked one of the two women to look after his daughters and jumped down onto the track bed. The train was already rolling into the station, leaving Autrey not even a fraction of a second to think. He grabbed the fallen man and tried to heave him onto the platform, but the man was too heavy. So Autrey pulled him down between the rails and threw himself on top of him. The epileptic struggled, but Autrey pushed him down with all his might. When something cold touched his forehead, Autrey pressed his head into the other man’s shoulder. Only two fingers of space separated his head from the train’s undercarriage.

Five cars rolled over him. Then the train came to a halt and Autrey could hear his daughters screaming. When rescue workers finally freed the two men from beneath the train, there was a smear of grease on Autrey’s cap. The paramedics discovered only a few bruises on the epileptic. Autrey himself refused medical attention. In his opinion, he hadn’t done anything special even though he knew he had risked his life. “I saw the man and he needed help…I just felt that I had to do something.”

If you imagine Autrey as a taciturn and straitlaced fighter for justice and decency—a western hero in the mold of Gary Cooper—you would be mistaken. And he is nothing like the cliché of the pale martyrs eager to make a show of their readiness to sacrifice themselves for others. Wesley Autrey has an athletic build, and if you met him in his Harlem neighborhood, with his warm-up suit and a baseball cap turned backward, you might mistake him for a rapper. Only a few gray hairs in his beard hinted at his age of fifty-one.

His actions at the 137th Street stop on that day, January 2, 2007, made him a national hero. He was invited to the White House and interviewed on talk shows, where he spoke with such animated and articulate ease that he seemed used to such attention. In reality, he earned his living as a foreman on construction sites and had earlier worked three years as a Postal Clerk 3rd Class in the United States Navy. But if anyone was awkward in his interviews, it was prominent interviewers like David Letterman, who made lame jokes to distract attention from the fact that he couldn’t match the eloquence of his guest. Autrey proved to be a much cooler guy.

The media and politicians celebrated him as an example, and when Autrey now entered the station at 137th Street, people constantly wanted to touch him as if to assure themselves that he really was a flesh-and-blood human being.

But no one seemed to notice how disturbing Autrey’s heroic deed actually was. What brings a father to risk his life for a stranger in the presence of his two children, aged four and six? How can a person decide in the space of a few seconds to risk his own life to save another.

The Hero Next Door

Millions of TV viewers may have admired Autrey, but what he did represented a real challenge to science. According to traditional scientific explanations, the events beneath 137th Street should not have taken place. The last few decades of research in behavioral science have produced an image of humans as deeply selfish beings. Biologists have viewed us as programmed for maximal reproductive success. Evolutionary psychologists say we are hardwired to seek status. And most economists (probably the most influential of all social scientists) understand human activity as a search for affluence and comfort.

All the disciplines have been unanimous in their assumption that everyone is looking out for number one and altruism is an illusion.

But researchers today clearly recognize the difficulties raised by such a conclusion. After all, both men and other animals live and work together in peace. The fish called the bluestreak cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) swims into the mouths of potential predators, like groupers and moray eels, which could swallow it in an instant. Instead, these predators allow it to stay and eat the parasites that have collected there.

Ants, bees, wasps, and termites live in colonies of millions of individuals, proving that cooperation in large groups can be spectacularly successful. For how seemingly insignificant each individual insect is, their communities are all the more impressive. It is estimated that in the tropics, termites alone constitute half the animal biomass; that is, these social insects taken together weigh as much as all the other animals inhabiting tropical Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America. Not even the spread of our own species has reached such proportions. The weight of more than seven billion human beings in the world is equal only to the weight of all other vertebrates combined. Yet Homo sapiens rules the entire planet and has formed globe-spanning organizations.

All of this would be incomprehensible if individuals had only their own interests in view. And so behavioral scientists worked for decades to explain how communities are possible if every action must have personal advantage as its reward.

Yet how could they possibly explain the fact that again and again, people like Wesley Autrey selflessly come to the aid of others, even at the risk of their own lives? Heroes may be few and far between, but can we simply dismiss them as exceptions?

After all, tens of thousands of people risked their lives to save Jews from the death camps during the Second World War. And a great number of my fellow citizens are willing to suffer pain for others: More than three million Germans have registered to donate bone marrow for leukemia patients unknown to them. In the United States, there are popular websites where volunteers can donate one of their kidneys for transplantation into a stranger.

Less spectacular but perhaps even more important for our coexistence are the innumerable situations in daily life that do not conform to the image of an always-egocentric human race. Why, for example, do we leave a tip even when we know we will never return to the restaurant? Why do we rush to stop a child we see running into the street? It’s also difficult to see the advantage of caring for a bedridden relative for years, giving an anonymous donation to help earthquake victims we don’t know, or volunteering our precious free time for a good cause, as more than sixty million Americans do each year. And my own Germany would certainly be a different place today if, roughly twenty-five years ago, first hundreds and later tens of thousands of East Germans had not braved possible repercussions from the Stasi to turn out for the Monday demonstrations that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

And while the percentage of Americans involved in traditional forms of civic engagement is stable, brand-new forms of cooperation and selflessness are blossoming on the Internet. People worldwide donate their expertise for free, enabling ten million articles to be put up on Wikipedia seemingly overnight, as well as the free open-source programs that challenge the dominance of firms like Microsoft.

In the case of many scientific puzzles, we can easily accept the fact that researchers have not yet been able to solve them. But the fact that altruistic acts are difficult to explain and yet ubiquitous raises fundamental questions about our very concept of ourselves. How selfishly—and how selflessly—are people capable of behaving? Under what circumstances do they put their own interests second? How can engagement on behalf of others be encouraged?

We often complain about the selfishness of our contemporaries. But perhaps human kindness is like the air: We constantly move within it and can easily forget entirely that it is there. Only when we’re deprived of it do we realize what we’re missing. The person who has a meal in a restaurant with friendly service and doesn’t leave a tip is universally considered a miserly boor.

Excerpt from Survival of the Nicest, copyright © Stefan Klein, 2013. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.