The most recent episode of RadioLab investigates the source of human goodness and it includes an astounding insight into heroism.
Most of the show investigates the quandary of altruism and whether it is actually a biologically selfish act that evolved to help protect shared genetic material in blood relatives. (I explored the same question in this essay about altruism and economics.)
However, RadioLab takes an intriguing twist on the story by looking at cases that fall outside selfish-gene theory and seem to prove their is an intangible source of goodness within us all. This part of the show looked at people who were awarded the Carnegie Medal for heroism. This honour is given to civilians who risk their life to an extraordinary degree while trying to save the lives of others. Three incredibly brave medal recipients were interviewed: a woman climbed an electric fence and chased off a savage bull that was goring a helpless farmer; a man who rescued three teenagers from a blazing car that had crashed into a utility pole; and a man who leapt in front of a subway to save an epileptic who had rolled onto the tracks.
These stories were magnificent, but here’s what was truly uplifting: Since the medal was created in 1904, the Carnegie Hero Fund has had to repeatedly raise the eligibility standards for the medal! “Simply because of the vast number of heroic deeds that happen in day-to-day-life,” Walter F. Rutkowski, executive director of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, told the RadioLab hosts. “Regardless of what you hear elsewhere, we are fortunate to be living in a society where people do look out for others, even strangers.”