9 April 2009

Human kindness

Humans have a special combination of co-operative instincts, prosocial motives, high level intention attribution and moral propensities.
-- says N J Enfield. [1] And how far back might that sophistication go?

Among my favourite humans are Homo erectus: ancestors closer to us than the jugular vein and yet in so many ways totally unknown.

Some ape mothers may carry the body of a deceased infant for days after its death. But early humans may have been able to do much more than other apes in some cases to actually keep ailing infants and children alive. [2], [3]  And there is intriguing but inconclusive evidence of well-developed caring strategies for severely handicapped individuals as long as 530,000 years ago. [4]


[1] This is from a review in Science, 3 April 09, of Origins of Human Communication by Michael Tomasello. Enfield is the co-editor of Roots of Human Sociality: Culture, Cognition, and Interaction.

[2] (Added 20 April) The empathy of our closest evolutionary relatives [i.e. chimpanzees] exceeds even their desire for bananas, says Frans de Waal. 

[3] (Added 23 April) It may be that allomaternal care is required once adult brain size reaches about 1000 cubic centimetres, or about Homo erectus size.

[4] The brain-damaged child, of the species Homo heidelbergensis, would probably have needed special treatment and care over a long period of time. See Did Early Humans Really Care?.

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