Animal Altruism?Mar 12, 2012 at 07:01:59 AM
In various conversations I have about Judaism, the discussion often gets stuck on one basic point: How do we know we have a soul?
The answer, I believe, is quite intuitive. Imagine a hungry wolf and a piece of meat. The wolf will do whatever he can ― even injure other wolves ― to get that meat. For an animal, there is no concept of altruism, of "Let's stand in line," or "Perhaps that other wolf is more hungry than I," or "Maybe there are handicapped wolves back at the camp." None of that.
Some people argue that we do see animals "doing kindness" ― e.g. taking care of their young. But that is just another survival instinct. Just as animals run from danger, so too survival instincts often manifest in protecting young and in forming social groups. But altruism will never override an animal's survival instincts.
Indeed, a study of chimpanzees showed that while chimps exhibit group cooperation, when it comes to helping those not in their group, they inevitably choose the selfish option. The experiment demonstrated that "chimps don't share the same concern for the welfare of others as do humans, who routinely donate blood... volunteer for military duty, and perform other acts that benefit perfect strangers," said Joan Silk, an anthropologist at UCLA.
A soul, on the other hand, has higher needs ― love, meaning, justice ― that often run contrary to survival instincts. For example: On a pure survival level, if I have a thousand dollars, it's in my best interest to keep it for myself. To go ahead and give that away to a stranger on the other side of the world is actually contrary to my survival instinct, since reducing my resources increases the chance of becoming destitute myself.
So what does all this have to do with a soul? It is the nature of all living beings ― both humans and animals ― to seek pleasure. If we decide to give charity or help a poor person who doesn't have food, even if that means going hungry ourselves, that's a form of pleasure. There are many stories from the Holocaust of people who gave their morsel of bread to somebody else. That's the human being going beyond the "bodily pleasure" of a wolf and connecting to the altruistic giving that characterizes God.
As Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt"l points out in his classic essay, "Five Levels of Pleasure," to maximize our pleasure in life, we need to make wise choices of what pleasures to seek. Pizza on the beach is nice, but it's not the ultimate. Caring for others, or making a difficult decision to do the right thing ― these are high-level pleasures, unique to the human being.
That, in a word, indicates a Divine soul.