Altruism Rocks

Are human beings predisposed to altruism, or selfishness? Plato wondered about it in Republic, philosophers and scientists have debated it ever since. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin argues that selfishness may even be beneficial to our survival, doubting that offspring of “benevolent and sympathetic parents” would be “reared in greater numbers than the children of selfish and treacherous” ones.


The 17th-century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes was adamant that governments were vital to prevent humans’ inherent self-centred tendencies, while revered biologist and author, Richard Dawkins, believes that we should “try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish” (though he does temper it with the observation that by understanding our “selfish genes” we “at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do”).


Santa Fe Institute economist and author of the Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives are no Substitute for Good Citizens, Samuel Bowles, says that we seek “situational cues” of acceptable behaviour, and when offered financial incentive to do something, a ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude is activated “often to such an extent that the person will perform less with the incentive than without”. 


Though historically the scientific community has erred on the side of innate human selfishness, a bout of more recent studies implies that young kids, at least, are naturally prone to kindness. A study published in the journal Nature, involving a series of ‘morality tests’, showed that babies under the age of one were overwhelmingly drawn to ‘good guys’ over ‘bad guys’, leading the authors to conclude that such capacity “may serve as the foundation for moral thought and action” as well as the basis for “more abstract concepts of right and wrong”. Other experiments have shown babies to assist others struggling to perform tasks such as picking up dropped objects or opening cupboard doors.


Research published in the journal Psychological Science in 2015 found that altruistic acts lead to better health in children as young as four years old—and that kids from more well-off families are less likely to act altruistically. “The findings provide us with a new understanding of how children’s altruistic behaviors, family wealth and physiological health are intertwined,” notes lead researcher and psychological scientist, Jonas Miller, of California Davis University. “…. Our findings suggest that fostering altruistic tendencies might be one path to promoting better health and well-being for all children.”


Girls Rock! Camp Aotearoa is a not for profit organisation looking to instil such values in its charges by empowering female, trans and non-binary youth through the medium of music. 


“It’s about creating a more inspiring and equal environment in the New Zealand music industry,” says Billie Rogers, camp co-ordinator. “The opportunity to learn and share with an amazing team of like-minded wahine felt like an exciting privilege.”


The programme is based on a model that began in Portland in the US in 2001 and soon spread to other cities around the world.


“We decided to follow suit after attending and mentoring at camps in Canberra, the first of the Australian camps,” says Billie. “We, as a collective, seek to nurture and promote genre equality, to provide supportive space for young women, trans and non-binary people to exercise their creative voices.”


Billie takes great pleasure in witnessing the attendees meeting “like-minded people, in some cases for the very first time”, building both their skills and confidence. Though there are “no particular defining characteristics” of her fellow volunteers, “patience, compassion and enthusiasm seem to be a common thread”. 


“We find that as much diversity as possible within the Girls Rock team is a key strength when it come to delivering a successful and inclusive programme,” says Billie. “I love how a group of people with a range of different skills and various backgrounds can come together to achieve a creative goal. 


Next up on the programme is Girls Rock! Poneke which will be based out of Wellington’s Massey University during the July school holidays, with activities including instrument lessons, workshops and band practices. Performances are held at the end of the week.


“The social pressures of the modern world can be gnarly and having access to a programme that connects and empowers people is pivotal,” says Billie. “It’s all about making positive change, listening to each other and offering useful, unpatronising guidance.” 


The project has been warmly welcomed by both music and local communities.


“People love to help people,” says Billie. “There is a growing representation and acceptance of gender minorities in the music industry, but there is still a long way to go, still a lot of room for more support. Change can’t happen quickly enough!”


Girls Rock! Poneke runs 8-13 July at Massey University, Wellington, from 9am-4pm. For more information visit girlsrockcamp.co.nz