I have sad personal news to report – the death of our family’s beloved pet, Ollie. In early September, Ollie suffered from congestive heart failure. After a week spent in doggie intensive care and then several weeks more back and forth from our vet, he finally lost the fight a week ago and passed on.
Ollie’s extremely non-competitive behaviour in part, inspired me to write The Bond. I thought of him in relation to some new evidence I just discovered about why we are kind to each other.
Ollie was a small, tri-colored Cavalier King Charles spaniel and, characteristic of the breed which was bred by royal decree, he was born with a peculiar sense of regal entitlement and a permanent look of disdain. Ollie belonged in a Peanuts cartoon, the curmudgeonly dog whose thought balloon, like Snoopy’s, continuously registered his exasperation at his clueless owners.
He never came to the door to greet us. He almost never wanted to play. He refused to eat, except at inconvenient times. On those few occasions that we got a lie-in, he pounded on the kitchen door, demanding entry to the rest of the house.
Almost all of his time at home, he was to be found slumped at the bottom step of our stairs, refusing to move, even when his name was called.
Defies evolutionary theory
Nevertheless, as much as he regarded us with a degree of impatience, Ollie’s view of other dogs was completely different. He didn’t have much time for humans, but he was kindly to every dog he meets on his walk. He regularly shoved bones under the fence for our next-door neighbor’s affenpinscher, T-bone; in fact, he saved the biggest bones for her.
Ollie’s relationship with T-bone defied every current biological description about the imperative to act selfishly. As T-bone is neutered, there was no personal genetic advantage to courting T-bone, no possibility of extending the family line.
Nevertheless, when T-bone visited, Ollie often raided our garbage wheelie bin, fishing out a chicken carcass for her to feast on, then offering her unfettered access to his own food bowl, his pig's ears and his toys. Although T-bone was smaller than he is, when Ollie played with her, he often lets her win, just to keep her in the game.
Born to be meaningful
Every story we are told tells us that we in the human and animal kingdom were born to be selfish.
But Ollie’s behavior set off a question that reverberated in my head so frequently that I began to think that it had been surgically implanted there: does it have to be like this?
Were we meant to be so competitive with each other? Is it inherent in animal and human biology? How did it get like this? And if we’re not this, what are we supposed to be?
I thought of Ollie again this week while studying brain research showing that our tendency toward altruism may reflects how we have been brought up to view the world.
During the study, carried out by Duke University and published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers scanned the brains of 45 people with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), while they were either playing a computer game or observing a computer play the game on its own. Winning – whether by the participants or the computer – resulted in money being donated to the charity of the participant’s choice.
The researchers also gave the participants a questionnaire designed to uncover how often they engaged in a variety of helping behaviors.
When compared together, the researchers discovered a link between those participants who were generally more altruistic in their lives and who also registered greater activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTC) while playing or watching the game.
The pSTC, which lies in the top and back of the right hemisphere of the brain, tends to be activated when the mind is trying to figure out social relationships.
‘We believe that the ability to perceive other people’s actions as meaningful is critical for altruism,’ said Dharol Tankersley, the lead author of the study.
What the researchers are essentially saying is that people who are more likely to view the world as a series of meaningful interactions are also more likely to be altruistic.
This particularly interested me with regard to a good deal of modern evolutionary theory, particularly among the most ardent of atheists, to regard life essentially as ‘blind watchmaker,’ a series of meaningless encounters, much like Meursault, Camus’ hero in The Stranger, who declares: ‘Nothing, nothing mattered . . . What did other people's deaths or a mother's love matter to me . . or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we're all elected by the same fate.’
If the Duke University research is to be believed, at a vital aspect of altruism is the ability to perceive life as purposeful – an intelligent design, of which we are a vital part.
This essentially means that if you believe in the selfish gene theory – that we’re simply meaningless husks, driven by genetic imperative – you are more likely to be, well, selfish.
Happily, Ollie – and many other so-called dumb animals – knew better. No wonder he had so little time for human beings.