The Compassionate Beast: What Science Is Discovering About the Humane Side of Humankind

By Morton Hunt

(William Morrow & Co., New York, 1990)

$18.95; 287 pp.

What made some Germans risk their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust? What made 38 people in Queens ignore the screams for help from Kitty Genovese in 1964, as she was being murdered under their windows? Why does one man rush into a burning house to rescue a stranger's child, while another man walks by with scarcely a glance? How can a human infant develop into anything from Adolf Eichmann to Albert Schweitzer?

Morton Hunt, the author of many books on the behavioral and social sciences, including "The Natural History of Love" and "The Universe Within," raises questions like these and then, drawing on the vast number of studies of altruism by psychologists and sociologists since the 1960s, tries to answer them.

Hunt defines altruism as "behavior carried out to benefit another at some sacrifice to oneself and without, or not primarily because of, the expectations of rewards from external sources." This definition eliminates those who saved Jews from the Nazis because they were paid, the money-raising efforts of social climbers on behalf of the arts and medical research and doctors or lawyers who put in a few hours a week of free service to the poor in order to impress their fellow professionals. We're talking about sacrifice.

Many philosophers have said flatly that there is no such thing as "real" or "pure" altruism, maintaining that humans perform all manner of generous acts in order to win approval from others or to improve their own sense of self-esteem. Not true, according to Hunt; altruism exists.

Studies by Carolyn Zahn Waxler from 1967 through the early 1970s show that children too young to comprehend the concept of altruism are genuinely upset at the sight of pain in others and try to help or comfort the afflicted.

How can humans survive by being altruistic? Why hasn't the altruism gene, if there is such a thing, been eliminated by evolution, since every truly altruistic act diminishes to some extent the altruist's chances of thriving or even surviving? Hunt's explanation: Evolution has built into the human species certain emotional reactions, such as empathy, to people in distress. In other words, biology makes individuals potentially responsive to the needs of others, but the degree to which someone responds is the result of experience, including values, emotions, ideas and behavior patterns taught at home, in school and in the world around us.

Hunt's account of the various studies of altruism are fascinating. Social psychologists have staged experiments to determine how many people pick up a billfold on the sidewalk and return it to its rightful owners (well-dressed people returned it more often than poorly dressed people) or to find out what kind of people will help a man writhing on the floor of a New York subway car. (If the victim had a cane, people helped him up in 62 out of 65 trials, unless he smelled of alcohol. Race was not a factor; white people helped black people as much as they helped white people.)

All sorts of factors can inhibit the altruistic impulse. War, of course, can make monsters out of ordinary people. But sometimes, the greatest dangers cannot stifle the altruistic impulse. Hunt begins his book with the story of Arland Williams Jr., who in January 1982, after an Air Florida jet crashed into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, stayed in the icy Potomac River while he caught the rope from a rescuing helicopter and handed it to at least three other survivors. He died before he could be rescued.

Samuel Oliner, who as a child was saved from the Holocaust by a Gentile family friend, eventually reached the U.S., established a business and earned a doctorate when he was 41. Several years later, while teaching the history of the Holocaust at Humboldt State University in California, he began a research project called "Altruism in Nazi-Occupied Europe." Research by Lawrence Baron and Perry London has established that at least 50,000 Christians risked their lives to rescue 200,000 Jews.

Oliner and his staff interviewed 406 rescuers, along with others who did not participate in such efforts. He was struck by the complexity and variability of their motivations and actions: Some acted instantly, others had to think it over; some acted out of pity, others out of a sense of duty. After a computer analysis, Oliner discovered that his data did not confirm widely held suppositions about rescuers. He discovered, for instance, that the rescuers had a sense of belonging to their communities, as did the non-rescuers. Neither group was more adventurous or religious than the other.

What distinguished the rescuers was that they tended to have a network of family or friends who gave them emotional support and were more easily moved by pain and were more empathic than non-rescuers. In addition, they had a strong sense of personal and social responsibility and had also lived near Jews earlier in their lives.

Most important, they were the children of parents who relied less on physical punishment and significantly more on reasoning or communication than did the parents of non-rescuers.

More recently, the callousness of neighbors who heard but paid no attention to Kitty Genovese's screams for help while she was being murdered in Kew Gardens troubled social scientists. Two psychologists, Bibb Latane of Columbia and John Darley of New York University, decided to investigate. They hypothesized that inaction might have resulted because there were 38 witnesses, not in spite of the fact.

Through experiments with NYU students, they developed what they called the "bystander effect." What they determined was that people hesitate to take action when other people are present; they fear being laughed at and they feel that somebody else is already doing something.

Psychologists who have studied this phenomenon offer this advice: If you're injured or threatened and there are witnesses, pick out one person and assign a task to that one. Point to him or her and say, "Call the police" or "Come and help me."

Good advice, if you can remember it.

Ann Waldron is a writer in Princeton, N.J.