On the way home I saw a very small fledgeling bluetit that had apparently fallen out of its nest and waddled into the road. Needless to say, it was a little bit shellshocked. I picked it out of the road and stuck it in the bushes before it could metamorphose into a very wide fledgeling.
I wasn't able to help an old lady across the road, but only due to a regrettable shortage of old ladies in these parts. This being the North of England, where fat is the fifth food group, they probably all die young of coronaries or acquired diabetes...
These acts of madness are not isolated incidents. Only a couple of weeks ago, whilst on camping, I took half an hour of time out from the festivities to help the bloke in the next pitch put up his tent. And I'm no better in this respect (or worse, I hope) than the average guy on the street.
There was no obvious benefit to me from any of these. Apart from the cookies, the blood donation was just a very long-winded way to get mildly dizzy. Bluetits are not known for their gratitude, and this one gave me nothing but a mildly increased risk of Asian Bird Flu. And one of my (young, female, single) co-campers did comment "oh, you're so nice", but sadly she's not otherwise interested in me.
So why do we do this crazy stuff? Needless to say, I have a
The key concept I'd like to introduce here is the difference between proximate and ultimate causes. Humans perform a great many activities that - considered in the short term - are daft in the extreme. Consider the well-known spike in mortality rates for people in their early 20s, due largely to deaths from violence (accident, homicide, suicide).
All told, the human race appears to consist of idiots who waste their time and life expectancy for no better reason than "I felt like it". We shall call this the proximate cause of their actions.
Occasionally people are able to justify their behaviour in terms of some longer-term plan. For example, I work for a financial company because I'd quite like to make lots of money, but I work in pensions rather than investment banking because I would prefer not to die of exhaustion by the age of 30. In this case, we say that the proximate cause is supported by prior causes.
Very occasionally, we can trace our chain of causes all the way back to some very fundamental cause like "I don't want to die young". At this point, logic has to get off and hop - as David Hume pointed out, you can't reason from "is" statements to an "ought" statement. I reckon that these low-level goals are hardwired into me by evolution, so the ultimate cause of my actions is reproductive fitness.
But what about situations, such as giving blood, where I myself can't see any link between action and reward?
Well, the important thing to realise is: just because I can't see a link, doesn't mean it ain't there. Anyone who put my life under a high-resolution microscope might observe that, in giving blood, I've probably endeared myself to many of my co-workers. By making this comparatively harmless sacrifice, I've demonstrated that I'm a good, upstanding, altruistic chap who is welcome to marry their sister.
Now it's important to note that none of this went through my head. I didn't think "hmm, let's manipulate my colleagues' feelings"; what I thought was "ooh, there's a blood drive on, I can go help save someone's life". My impulse to do good appears to be completely disconnected from any sense of the consequences.
But of course it's not disconnected at all. The impulse is a side-effect of how my brain is structured, and of how it was programmed when I was young (which is more or less a side-effect of how other people's brains are structured). My brain structure is controlled by my genes. My genes have spent 3.7 billion years avoiding being wiped out, and they've achieved this by producing survival machines (like me) that are comparatively successful.
The result is that our actions - our unthinking, instinctive, intuitive actions - are quite often smarter than we realise. No matter how dumb the behaviour, there's probably a shred of logic hiding behind it.
In short: maybe one day I'll rescue a baby bird and consequently attract a bird of the human variety.