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- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
Why do so many people seem so selfish these days, putting their needs first? The coronavirus has not only decimated our population and placed lives on anxious hold, it has also been a test of character. A test that, by and large, we appear to be failing. People are at each other's throats over wearing masks, the true facts of the pandemic, blatant racism and old monuments, all the while appearing to be driven by pure selfishness to others – a feeling coming from all sides of the political spectrum. Where does this selfish behavior come from, exacerbated by a series of crises?
For starters, it is to some extent, natural to be self-oriented. After all, what else do we know? We are at the center of our own worlds, always looking to bolster the ego. Self-interest is the most fundamental human motivation, argued English philosopher Thomas Hobbes all the way back in the 1600s. But acting out of self-interest is not necessarily the only thing on our minds. As research has shown, human behavior can be motivated as much by altruism and moral considerations. So at what point does healthy self-care and the right amount of self-love become selfishness, a trait we judge negatively?
Psychologists, like F. Diane Barth, define selfishness as having two primary pillars: "Being concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself" and "Having no regard for the needs or feelings of others." Of course, most of us probably live somewhere on a sliding scale of selfless to selfish moments. Still, in the public consciousness being selfish is erroneously associated with becoming more successful, even though the facts don't necessarily bear that out.
A 2020 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked to figure out if people who prioritize self-oriented behavior did better in life. The team led by Kimmo Eriksson of Stockholm University compared such factors as the yearly income and number of biological children. They analyzed a large sample of responses by 5,294 Americans to the public opinion General Social Survey (GSS) between the years of 2002 and 2014, as well as European responses to the European Social Survey (ESS). The scientists identified the more selfish people by their answers to various survey questions. Overall, while the researchers found that in public perception, 68% of the people believed selfishness was a common trait of those who made more money, in reality, people with selfless attitudes and behavior had higher incomes and also more children. "Generosity pays," as states the title of their study.
Paul Krugman on the Virtues of Selfishness
What's more, altruistic behavior may be the default option in our brains, suggests research carried out in 2016/2017 by a team led by Leonardo Christov-Moore from UCLA. They found an area of the prefrontal cortex that can be specifically affected to make people less giving.
So if selflessness is rooted in the brain, why do some people have such a hard time caring about the needs of others? The answer might lie in emotional intelligence, as pointed out psychologist Lisa Marie Bobby in an interview. "Emotional intelligence exists on a spectrum, and some individuals are higher in emotional intelligence than others," she shared. "One symptom of low emotional intelligence is the tendency to be self-absorbed, or exclusively concerned about what you're thinking, feeling, needing and wanting, instead of the thoughts, feelings, needs and desires of others."
Evolution Is Moving Us Away from Selfishness. But Where Is It Taking ...
Another unfortunate factor – many find it hard to detect selfishness in themselves. As a 2020 study from Yale psychologists and economists at the University of Zurich found out, selfish people make adaptions to their memories to avoid feeling bad about their egotistical behavior. The research, published in the April 29 in the journal Nature Communications, revealed that people tend to remember themselves being better to others than they actually were.
"When people behave in ways that fall short of their personal standards, one way they maintain their moral self-image is by misremembering their ethical lapses," explained Molly Crockett, assistant professor of psychology at Yale University and the study's senior author.
Fast-forward a few years from now, and certainly more than a few people will be remembering their actions of today with a very different slant from what actually happened. As it is, getting a better grasp on behavior that doesn't take others into consideration is everyone's personal responsibility. Where does one right end (let's say, the liberty not to wear masks) and the right of everyone else to good health begin? At what point does your right not to get infected outweigh the right of another to pursue economic prosperity? How much does my right to survive depend on the good will and cooperation from others? Answering these truthfully, without feeling attacked, can stem the tide of real and perceived selfishness that goes against our better natures and costs us lives and societal degradation.
Exploring Morality and Selfishness in Modern Times
Ernest Hemingway was affectionately called “Papa," but what kind of dad was he?
In my role as Associate Editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, I spend my time investigating the approximately 6,000 letters sent by Hemingway, 85% of which are now being published for the first time in a multivolume series. The latest volume – the fifth – spans his letters from January 1932 through May 1934 and gives us an intimate look into Hemingway's daily life, not only as a writer and a sportsman, but also as a father.
During this period, Hemingway explored the emotional depths of fatherhood in his fiction. But his letters show that parenting could be a distraction from what mattered most to him: his writing.
'No alibis' in the writing business
Hemingway had three sons. His oldest, John – nicknamed "Bumby" – was born to Ernest and his first wife, Hadley, when Ernest was 24 years old. He had Patrick and Gregory with his second wife, Pauline.
Hemingway initially approached fatherhood with some ambivalence. In her 1933 memoir "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," Gertrude Stein recalls that one evening Hemingway came to visit and "announced…with great bitterness" that he was "too young to be a father."
As the fifth volume of letters opens in January 1932, Hemingway is trying to finish "Death in the Afternoon," his nonfiction account of bullfighting, in a household with a six-week-old baby, a three-year-old who ingests ant poison and nearly dies, a wife still recovering from a C-section, along with all the quotidian problems of home ownership, from a leaky roof to faulty wiring.
Ernest Hemingway and Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway, with Gregory, Patrick and Bumby in Key West, 1933. (Princeton University Library, Author provided)
Hemingway explained to his mother-in-law, Mary Pfeiffer, that if his latest book fell short, he couldn't simply take readers aside and say, "But you ought to see what a big boy Gregory is…and you ought to see our wonderful water-work system and I go to church every Sunday and am a good father to my family or as good as I can be."
There are "no alibis" in the writing business, Hemingway continued, and "a man is a fool" to allow anything, even family, to interrupt his work. "Taking refuge in domestic successes," he added, "is merely a form of quitting."
For Hemingway, work didn't simply entail sitting at a desk and writing. It also included the various adventures he was famous for – the fishing, hunting, traveling and socializing with the people he met along the way. Though he would teach the boys to fish and shoot when they were older, when they were very young he didn't hesitate to leave them with nannies or extended family for long stretches of time.
This separation was particularly hard on the youngest, Gregory, who, from a very young age, was left for months in the care of Ada Stern, a governess who lived up to her last name. Patrick sometimes joined his parents on their travels or stayed with other relatives. Bumby, the oldest, divided his time between his father and his mother in Paris. The children's lives were so peripatetic that at the Letters Project we maintain a spreadsheet to keep track of their whereabouts at any given time.
'Papa' explores fathers and sons in his fiction
However, it would not be accurate to say that Hemingway did not care about his children. In the latest volume of letters, three are addressed to Patrick, two of them decorated with circled dots, a Hemingway family tradition called "toosies," which represented kisses.
In his letters to his kids, Hemingway would sometimes draw dots called 'toosies,' which represented kisses. (Princeton University Library, Author provided)
In Hemingway's fiction, we can see the depth of that paternal feeling, and in his letters, the domestic moments that inspired him.
In November 1932, with his two youngest sons ill with whooping cough and being cared for by their mother at their grandparents' home in Arkansas, Hemingway postponed a trip to New York to stay in Key West with Bumby.
"He is a good kid and a good companion," Hemingway wrote his editor, Maxwell Perkins, "but I do not want to drag him around the speakies [bars] too much."
That same month Hemingway worked on the story of a father and son traveling together that would become "Fathers and Sons" in the collection "Winner Take Nothing." It's one of the only stories in which Nick Adams – a semi-autobiographical recurring character – is portrayed as a parent, and the reflective, melancholy piece was written just three years after Hemingway's own father had died by suicide.
In the story, Nick is driving along a stretch of highway in the countryside with "his son asleep on the seat by his side" when he starts thinking about his father.
Nick recalls many details about him: his eyesight, good; his body odor, bad; his advice on hunting, wise; his advice about sex, unsound. He reflects on viewing his father's face after the undertaker had made "certain dashingly executed repairs of doubtful artistic merit."
Nick is surprised when his son starts to speak to him because he "had felt quite alone" even though "this boy had been with him." As if reading his father's thoughts, the boy wonders, "What was it like, Papa, when you were a little boy and used to hunt with the Indians?'"
Hemingway's letters show that another story in the collection, "A Day's Wait," was inspired by Bumby's bout with influenza in the fall of 1932. It is a seemingly lighthearted story about a young boy's misunderstanding of the differences between the centigrade and Fahrenheit scales of temperature. Like Bumby, the protagonist, "Schatz" – one of Bumby's other nicknames, a term of endearment in German – attends school in France but is staying with his father when he becomes ill. Schatz had learned at school that no one can survive a temperature of 44 Celsius, so, unbeknownst to his father, he spends the day waiting to die of his fever of 102 Fahrenheit.
But there is more to this story than the twist. "You don't have to stay in here with me, Papa, if it bothers you," the boy tells him. "It doesn't bother me," his father replies. He unwittingly leaves his son to believe, for an entire day, not only that the boy is going to die, but that his death is of no importance to his father.
In this slight story – one of those stories he told Perkins was written "absolutely as they happen" – we find an unexpected Hemingway hero in the form of a nine-year-old boy who bravely faces death alone.
Though he once wrote that he wanted "Winner Take Nothing" to make "a picture of the whole world," Hemingway also seemed to understand that no one ever truly knows the subjective experience of another, not even a father and son.
- Ask someone what they think aliens look like and you'll probably get a description heavily informed by films and pop culture. The existence of life beyond our planet has yet to be confirmed, but there are clues as to the biology of extraterrestrials in science.
- "Don't give them claws," says biologist E.O. Wilson. "Claws are for carnivores and you've got to be an omnivore to be an E.T. There just isn't enough energy available in the next trophic level down to maintain big populations and stable populations that can evolve civilization."
- In this compilation, Wilson, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, and evolutionary biologist Jonathan B. Losos explain why aliens don't look like us and why Hollywood depictions are mostly inaccurate.
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What should you be doing with your money during the coronavirus financial crisis? In this Big Think Live session, Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and co-founder of Ellevest, a financial advisory and investment platform for women, will discuss personal finance and wealth-building career strategies with Bob Kulhan, founder and CEO of Business Improv. What steps can we take to guard ourselves from an uncertain financial future? Find out on Tuesday at 1 pm ET.
Ask your questions for Sallie Krawcheck during the Q&A!
Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.
It was here, on a winter expedition, that scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction, and when it happened.
Dr Beth Shapiro is a paleo-geneticist, who co-runs the Paleogenomics Lab the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Using modern genomics techniques, her team looks back at the past to understand how species and populations have evolved through time, based on their DNA. It then applies those lessons to the conservation of endangered species today.
The genetic material from animals that lived in the northern hemisphere during the Ice Age, including bison, wolves, mammoths and horses, is particularly well preserved.
Dr Shapiro is able to extract DNA from samples, such as teeth, to see how species differed genetically and learn when populations were growing, when they were shrinking, when individual animals might have been moving long distances – and when they could not.
"Connectivity is a crucial part of many of these species' extinction stories," says Dr Shapiro.
And this is true of the fate of St Paul Island's woolly mammoths.
When did mammoths roam the Earth?
Mammoths lived on North America's mainland until about 10,000 years ago, but they survived in two places for much longer: St Paul Island and Wrangel Island, in the Russian Arctic, where teeth have been found that are only 4,000 years old.
St Paul is a volcanic island that until around 9,000 years ago was connected to the mainland by the Bering Land Bridge, which enabled animals to roam freely to and fro.
But as the climate warmed and sea levels rose, it became isolated – and the mammoths were trapped. They were the only large mammal on the island, with no predators and, speaking at a BetaZone session at Davos, Dr Shapiro said it would have been a "mammoth utopia".
How did a lake reveal what happened?
Dr Shapiro explains: "Lakes are brilliant sources of ancient DNA, because they are a sink for genetic material during the summer. Lake Hill is the only source of fresh water on St Paul. So all the animals wander in to drink and the DNA they deposit sinks to the bottom and then freezes.
"Over time, you get accumulation like a stratigraphy of layer upon layer of everyone that was present on the island from the past to the present day. We knew if we could get a copy of this, we could figure out who was there, when and with whom."
On their winter expedition to Lake Hill, Dr Shapiro's team drilled down through the ice of the lake to the gravel at the bottom and extracted a core.
The genetic material, they later learned, dated back to 17,000 years ago.
"We took tiny little plugs of DNA all the way to the top, to the present day, and looked for mammoth DNA. We also looked at the vegetation and components of the lake itself to see if it was changing over time. Microscopic algae and microscopic animals, for example, can tell us whether the lake was salty or not and how shallow it was."
Why did the St Paul Island mammoths die?
All of that data fit together like a jigsaw puzzle to show Dr Shapiro what had happened.
Mammoth DNA was present all the way from the bottom until around 5,600 years ago. Nothing changed with the vegetation, says Dr Shapiro, so they didn't run out of food.
"But everything else about the lake changed: the water chemistry changed; the rate of sediment accumulation changed. And that community of microorganisms completely turned from one that thrives in clear, deep fresh water to a community that prefers to live in very shallow, cloudy and slightly salty water."
All of which meant there had been a severe weather event, a drought, on St Paul Island. The lake started to dry up and the mammoths were left with nothing to drink.
"Had it happened 13,000 years ago, mammoths would have had another option. They could have wandered onto the mainland and looked for another source of fresh water. But they couldn't because they were on an island completely isolated, cut off from the mainland. Stuck. And so they became extinct."
How can we protect isolated habitats today?
Dr Shapiro warns the isolation that killed the mammoths on St Paul is threatening other species and biodiversity today.
"Islandization takes different forms where the habitats that we've chosen to protect are surrounded not by water, but by other things like farms and agriculture. By roads and highways and freeways. And by cities of all sizes.
"This places the plants and animals that live in these island habitats in a precarious situation. An extreme weather event or the introduction of a predator or disease can upset the balance of interactions taking place within these habitats, potentially leading to extinction."
Studies of other ancient animals using the same method, from woolly rhinos to Arctic horses and species of lion, have also shown connectivity is a key factor in extinction.
"The populations that remained became increasingly isolated from each other, both geographically and genetically, with each of these island populations functioning as their own tiny, isolated thing."
Any plan to protect and preserve endangered species must also give animals routes of escape to move between habitats or find new ones as the climate warms.
"This could mean building overpasses where animals can cross highways. We could create greenways, green roofs, city parks, green corridors along rivers and roads, and not just build walls or barriers that further fragment this already fragmented landscape."
The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is an example of an organization doing just that – aiming to link Yellowstone National Park in the Western United States with the Yukon in Canada, where Dr Shapiro does most of her work.
"A sustainable future for biodiversity will require creativity," she says. "But it will also require collaboration."