Lewis Thomas on Altruism

I find it very difficult to avoid used bookstores. In fact, it’s pretty rare for me to visit an unfamiliar city – or even a city I know well – and not find myself browsing the shelves of some such store. I rarely visit with the idea of finding a particular book, but instead browse the shelves, relying on the serendipity of happenstance.

I was visiting one such store last month and came across a collection of short essays by Lewis Thomas. I immediately recognized the book. In fact, a copy of it once sat in a bookshelf in my office. I had given it away in one of several book purges over the past decades. But I had such a rush of satisfaction upon seeing the book that I couldn’t resist purchasing it. And it’s a joy to read (or re-read) his work. (I have to admit that the 40 years or so since I last read Thomas melt away whatever distinction there is between reading and re-reading.)

An aside – this re-establishing of my relationship with Thomas’s work brings to mind Sarah Bakewell’s drawing on Virginia Woolf how books create community across generations: “Virginia Woolf had a beautiful vision of generations interlinked in this way: of how ‘minds are threaded together – how any live mind is of the same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides …. It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind” (How to Live, 315).

But back to Thomas. Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony brings together a couple dozen essays first published in the early 1980s, most of them in the New York Review of Books. It was a different world then, but Thomas’s words hold up well. For example, in “Altruism,” Thomas explores the question why we and other animals might have evolved to have some concern for other creatures. He offers examples of animal’s behavior – bees and other social insects, birds, mammals including baboons, zebras, and wildebeests – to support the point that altruism is not unique to humans. “It is genetically determined, no doubt about it. Animals have genes for altruism, and those genes have been selected in the evolution of many creatures because of the advantage they confer for the continuing survival of the species” (103). The reference to the survival of the species is key – Lewis and others suggest that altruism might well be limited, that close relationships are in play here. But he raises the question just how close these relationships need to be in order that an act might be considered altruistic.

He allows that reasonable people might disagree on how this tendency plays out in humans: some, he says, might see altruistic behavior as something one learns (or doesn’t learn) from one’s community, “acquired by cultures, taught by example” (104). Others might see it as genetically grounded. People on both sides would say that the influence, whether cultural or biological, is not deterministic. That is, they admit the obvious, that some people manage not to be altruistic at all.

Lewis sides with the sociobiologists, but pushes them to extend the community. “If we are to take seriously the notion that the sharing of similar genes imposes a responsibility on the sharers to sustain each other, and if … even very distant cousins carry at least traces of this responsibility and will act on it whenever they can, then the whole world becomes something to be concerned about on solidly scientific, reductionist, genetic grounds” (105). Lewis reminds us that evolutionary theory suggests that life has emerged only once on this planet, and that all of us – plants, animals, and even bacteria – share a common ancestor, a one-celled something that somehow emerged from the primeval soup. So we are all related.

And this is where Thomas’s words, written 40 years ago, hit even harder today. If we ignore concerns for other creatures and the environment in which all of us live, we all will suffer. “If we do it wrong, scattering pollutants, clouding the atmosphere with too much carbon dioxide, extinguishing the thin carapace of ozone, burning up the forests, dropping the bombs, rampaging at large through nature as though we owned the place, there will be a lot of paying back to do and, at the end, nothing to pay back with” (107).

The fact that nations came together to counter the threat to the ozone layer offers small (if any) comfort in the face of our resolute refusal to take meaningful steps toward preventing climate disaster. Nothing to pay back with, indeed.