THE COMPASSIONATE BEAST

What Science Is Discovering About the Humane Side of Humankind

By Morton Hunt

Morrow. 287 pp. $18.95

THE BRIGHTER SIDE OF HUMAN NATURE

Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life

By Alfie Kohn

Basic Books. 320 pp. $19.95

SAMUEL OLINER, a Polish Jew whose entire family was machine gunned to death by the Nazis, was saved by a Catholic peasant woman from a nearby village. After the war, he emigrated to America, went to college and ran a drapery business while studying sociology on the side. Then, at the age of 48 and by now a university professor, he began to study the gentiles who had risked their lives to rescue Jews from the Nazis.

Oliner came armed with hypotheses. Mostly, he refuted them. Compared to a control group, the rescuers were neither social outsiders, nor more "adventurous," nor more religious. As a group, they possessed no greater self-esteem. They were not even more anti-Nazi.

But they were, Oliner found, more empathic, more easily moved by pain. And invariably, they had been touched by a parent who had demonstrated -- not just talked about -- compassionate behavior; the rescuers cared for others because they had been raised to care.

What Oliner came to see as the most telling factor of all was "extensivity" -- how far out from your own family or group you extend your compassion and concern. The rescuers, it turned out, didn't care only for people like themselves. The "Us vs. Them" impulse was weak in them. The Jews they helped weren't, to them, Jews; they were people in trouble. "Extensivity," Oliner told Morton Hunt, author of The Compassionate Beast: What Science is Discovering About the Humane Side of Humanity, "is the essence of the altruistic personality."

Researchers still quibble about the precise nature of altruism; that much is plain in both Hunt's book and in The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life, by Alfie Kohn. But typically their findings -- as recounted more engagingly by Hunt, more exhaustively by Kohn -- tell the same story: If you erect psychological walls around you, or your family, or your ethnic group, your compassion stops at those walls. You will turn away from those in need -- whether a beggar on Main Street or a starving infant in Africa -- who stands outside.

There's much more in both books, of course, crammed as they are with psychological experiments bearing on altruism, empathy and the extent to which they dwell in human nature. But both insist that we as humans have been maligned, that kindness comes as naturally to us as selfishness, caring as cruelty. "By any reasonable standard, Kohn concludes after 239 pages, "altruism is real."

Before disposing of what they deem to be wrong-headed assumptions about the human animal, Hunt and Kohn take care to demonstrate their credentials as "realistic"; both are keenly aware of the reigning cynicism. It's not cool to see good in people; it's more normal to knowingly shake your head at the latest outrage on the 6 o'clock news, then chalk it up to "human nature."

The evidence the other way, after all, is ample enough -- from the Holocaust itself to the Kitty Genovese murder in 1964, when 38 people in Queens, N.Y., heard a young woman's cry for help as she was repeatedly stabbed, yet did nothing. The incident made headlines, was much plumbed for sociological significance, triggered numerous psychological experiments, and yielded the "bystander effect": you do nothing because you figure someone else is, or because you're afraid of making a fool of yourself, or because you read the inaction of others as evidence that no action is needed.

But all this, in the view of Hunt, Kohn and the many researchers they cite, argues only that the instinct to help can, in some circumstances, be blocked; it does nothing to deny that the instinct exists. Your shopping bag breaks, scattering fruits and vegetables across the supermarket floor -- and people stoop to retrieve them. People give blood, give directions, give money, give kidneys, give their lives in combat to protect their buddies. (Meanwhile, Kohn reports, only about one in four American infantrymen in World War II battles ever fired at the enemy -- despite elaborate training to get them to do just that. This hardly attests to an innate human disposition to kill.) Whatever the failings of human beings, Hunt and Kohn suggest, selfishness and brutality are no more "natural" than their opposites.

Hunt's is a happier sort of book, as if awash in pleasure at having discovered fresh new truths and eager to share them with his readers. Kohn's is more grimly earnest, out to push his point -- and, perversely, to dump sociobiologists favoring a darker view of human nature into his personal "Them" camp. Neither work is stylistically distinguished, though Hunt's is workmanlike enough and much the more readable.

Yet here, matters of literary craftsmanship count for little. Whatever their defects, these books are important. You cannot read them without thinking about the kind of person you are and the kind of society you live in, about how you treat your fellow man and raise your own children, about your capacity for good and the degree to which you act on it. Parents should read them. So should teachers. So should anyone quick to dismiss human kindness as no more than a facade for brute selfishness. Robert Kanigel, a Baltimore free-lance writer, is the author of "Apprentice to Genius" and a forthcoming biography of Ramanujan, the Indian mathematical prodigy.