So Many Heroes

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.”

About Jeremy Mercer

Jeremy Mercer is an author and translator who lives in in the Luberon with his fiancée, two children, five cats, two chickens, ten fish, and one pregnant dog. He is currently on the market for a cheap horse. More at
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2 Responses to So Many Heroes

  1. I don’t understand why we need to resort to some concept of “good” in us to explain these kinds of phenomena. If we extend the concept of shared genetic material from close blood relatives to the wider brotherhood of the human race (indeed are we not all related?), then selfish protection motives can equally apply to strangers. As sophisticated social animals, there is a clear evolutionary argument for emotions such as compassion, sympathy, empathy, social justice etc. – even perhaps the concept of karma, and a general sense of it being good to help other people out because things come around. From the species perspective, things do indeed come around, and colonies of cooperating humans will spread quicker and out-reproduce those in which everyone is mean and unhelpful to everyone else. The obvious advantages of humans having a compassionate emotion-set create the motive for it being genetically scripted.

    These acts of extreme heroism strike me less as proof of “goodness”, but rather as examples of individuals with an over-extended set of compassionate genes, much like someone else might have an over-extended set of physiognomy genes producing an exceptionally large nose. Why is it that we celebrate the “hero” people so and give them all these medals, while if someone’s got a giant hooter we just poke fun at them? Real compassion would be to give medals to the big nosers too.

    • What’s special about this is that, despite what you label ‘a clear evolutionary argument’ for compassion, social justice, karma, etc, the truth is that for the past century accepted economic and evolutionary theory was the exact opposite; that is, homo economicus did everything to improve her/his situation with no consideration for others, and the selfish gene did everything to replicate itself and, as J.B.S. Haldane so famously quipped, meant people would let 7 cousins drown in a river.

      What heroism and a few other phenomena – think vomiting vampire bats or the decrease in blood donations when payments are instituted – do is adroitly poke holes in accepted evolutionary/economic thinking and help inverse a social/governmental pattern that saw selfish behavior as a norm to be accommodated or encouraged. (Remember the famous study where economic students became less and less moral with each year of their education? The inverse holds true when norms of altruism/compassion are taught.)

      As to the nose tangent, surely you differentiate between physical genetic manifestations which the individual has no control over and genetic tendencies which merely give an individual an increased likelihood of a certain behavior. The tennis player who wins the Australian Open might have genetic advantages when it comes to hand/eye coordination or their fast-twitch muscles but it is years (decades) of brutal work and intense focus that truly leads to their success. And this should be celebrated. Similarly, if it is ever discovered that there is a genetic tendency toward altruistic behavior (and I believe this day will come) it doesn’t mean altruistic behavior shouldn’t be rewarded because the individual is still required to nurture this tendency and act upon it when the time is right.

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