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Human Instinct TV Programmes

Programme 4 - Natural Born Heroes

Wednesday 13 November 2002 9-10pm

A 200,000 year old jawbone tells the story of an elderly woman who was kept alive thanks to the kindness of her companions.

Ancient human jawbone
Is this jawbone the oldest evidence of human kindness?

From this first known example of human compassion to modern day heroes, the final programme in the Human Instinct series explores the most complex of instincts. The instinct to put others first.

Blood Ties

The mother’s drive to protect her children is the most powerful heroic instinct we know. Cindy Parolin showed no hesitation when she leapt to the defence of her 6 year old son.

Attacked by a cougar, Steven was saved by his mother’s incredible bravery as she wrestled with the animal for hours while he was dragged to safety by his brother and sister. But what is it that drives this incredible behaviour?

Having children is a way of ensuring our genes are passed on to the next generation. Humans usually have just one child at a time, so they are prepared to do virtually anything to ensure their children are safe. But this protective instinct also expands to the rest of our family.

And the more genes we share, the more likely we are to put ourselves out for someone. In a unique experiment, scientist Dr George Fieldman proves this point. People will hold their breath longer for their parents, children or siblings - who share half their genes - than they will for their grandparents, uncles or aunts- who share only a quarter.

Holding breath underwater
People will hold their breath longer underwater for more closely-related family.

Fast Friends

But unlike many animals, humans are also willing to risk everything for people who aren’t related to them. Al Rascon received the medal of honour for his actions in the Vietnam war. He ran into a hail of bullets, risking death, to rescue his injured friend. How has this self-sacrificing instinct evolved?

It appears humans have quite a lot in common with vampire bats. These tiny creatures must feed often to survive, and it is not that easy to find the blood they need. So they are willing to share their prize with others, safe in the knowledge that the bat they help today could be their meal ticket in the future. But this leads to the evolution of another instinct.

If we don’t want to lose out, we must make sure no one is cheating the system. The bats remember those who do, and so do we humans. Bill Harbaugh at the University of Oregon has done experiments on children showing how this instinctive taste for fairness leads them to share with one another.

Natural Born Heroes

None of us would hesitate to help someone who has had a bad fall. And it’s this same instinctive reaction which often leads to feats of great heroism. We all feel empathy when we see someone else in trouble, and at the University of Ferrara Luciano Fadiga may have found the reason why. Mirror neurones in our brains may help us mimic the actions and emotions of others.

Vampire bat
Vampire bats and humans are amongst a handful of animals that display altruistic behaviour.

We intuitively pick up others’ emotions from the expressions on their faces and our instincts for language mean we can explain ourselves in ways no other animals can. But we are even more than the sum of our instincts. As human beings we learn, we reason and we choose.

In the terrible disaster at the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001 two men found they too had the drive to be heroes. Mike Benfante and John Cerqueira helped carry wheelchair bound Tina Hansen to safety. In the midst of the chaos, John and Mike were spurred on by the instincts we all share to help others. But their extraordinary heroism also reveals a strength of character that instinct alone cannot explain.

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