Alaimo: Opening our hearts and tables

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I remember growing up in Brooklyn. Every summer they would cordon off our four-square block neighborhood and throw a block party. There were fireworks, sausage and pepper hoagies, homemade Sangria and catching lightning bugs in jelly jars. It seems like every house had tables set up with food on the sidewalk and we would walk around visiting and enjoying them. Surprisingly, very few houses did not offer something and yet, as far as I could tell, everyone (regardless of whether they set up a table or not) was welcome at every other house. I also remember that next door to us there was a tiny house that looked like a beach house. The people who lived there seemed incredibly old to my pre-teen self but I loved to visit them because of their amazing library. In that little den I discovered the complete Tarzan and the Pellucidar series, plus rows of Fleming, London, Asimov, Poe, Doyle and more—all in hardback and covering the wall like thick wallpaper. Despite my habit of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while reading, they would lend those books to me anytime I wanted. One of Aunt Tilley’s husbands (Bert, I believe) would also lend to me from his private library for the discerning gentleman—that is until Tilley found out and put a stop to it. The neighbors (and Bert) have long since passed but I remember their generosity and still have a love of reading.
Another set of memories, from more recently, is of long talks at the home of Mary Feirn here in Ridgway. For a number of years I vetted her pets and would often sit and visit with her after finishing whatever task I had gone there to do. Known to many for her outspoken nature, Mary was, sadly, less known for her years as a teacher or for her incredible and seemingly unlimited gifts to the Second Chance Humane Society. Mary has now also passed, leaving some wonderful children and grandchildren. Her care for animals and her generous spirit will be remembered for a long time.
So what makes people give of their time and goods without, seemingly, any return? The idea of altruism, or what Comte called “living (or doing) for the sake of others,” has been a part of almost all human traditions. In the Buddhist tradition there is the law of kamma-vipāka – this is the combination of karma or kamma (the action) and vipāka (the result). In the Christian tradition there is the Golden Rule of doing unto others what you would want to be done unto you. Modern skeptics often update the rule to “don’t do unto others anything you wouldn’t want done to you.” This makes more sense given all the weird things people actually like.
For Charles Darwin, altruism was a problem for his theory of Natural Selection. As he saw it, any creature that sacrificed would give itself a disadvantage in the game of evolution while a freeloader would take advantage. More recently the theories of kin selection, group selection and reciprocal altruism show that being altruistic to those in your group gives advantage to those who are likely to share genes. In a really interesting experiment, researchers showed that even mice have this sense of empathy and altruism. What they did was this: They made a little Plexiglas “trap” and put one of two cage-mate rats into the trap. This would stress out the trapped rat and it would cry out. The researchers found that the other (un-trapped) rat will usually work to release the trapped rat from the trap. In an unrelated experiment, mice that have been shown how to feed other (unrelated) mice across a barrier are more likely to do that if they have been so fed in the past. These experiments support the idea of species or group altruism. But, what about cross species altruism? Most people think that altruism towards creatures not closely associated with oneself is primarily a human endeavor. Yet elephants and dolphins have been known to save humans from danger and (lest we feel special), elephants have also been known to save dogs and, in one case, a baby rhino from a mud pit—despite the mother rhino’s misplaced attacks. Examples of generalized altruism support the notion that any kindness can increase the genes responsible for kindness—so by doing unto others we, in fact, do unto ourselves. Perhaps there will always be people who come to the block party without a dish to pass—sometimes because they are merely selfish but often because they just don’t have a dish. But the lesson we were taught is that overall, we make the world a better place when we open our hearts and our tables.

Dr. Joe Alaimo is the owner of Ouray Vet and partner of Trail Town Still. The savior of small animals, thirsty people everywhere and a fairly dangerous man with a garlic press.