Bombs, Instincts and Morals: Why Heroes Risk It All for Strangers

As some flee a dangerous situation, others, against millions of years of instinct, rush in

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John Tlumacki / Boston Globe / Getty Images

A woman who was injured in the first explosion is wheeled over the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Boylston Street, April 15, 2013.

Nature ought to have washed its hands of us by now, and if it hasn’t yet, yesterday’s blasts in Boston should have persuaded it to. It’s not just that we’re evil—though we are. We build bombs, we manufacture guns, we slaughter one another with an ugly lustiness that defies the powerful social impulses that are supposed to be coded into us.

The bigger problem for nature is that we’re also fools. If our genes have told us once, they’ve told us a thousand times: stay out of harm’s way. When a madman’s raging, when a bomb goes off, when a 110-story building is pancaking down and another one right next to it is about to do the same, run the hell away. Yes, yes, you hear a lot about fight or flight, but really, you want to live? Go for flight.

Yesterday at the Boston Marathon we saw it again. The bombs went off, the victims fell, the familiar footprint of flesh and blood and terror was stamped into the streets. And people did what they are hardwired to do, which is that they scattered—at first. And then an equally familiar gathering began. Police and servicemen swarmed the snow fences along the streets, pulling them down to allow medical personnel in. Doctors, paramedics and passersby knelt in the blood to administer aid to people they had never met before that moment and might never see after it. Perhaps there were more bombs that still could go off; perhaps the same madman who set off the first ones would show up with an assault weapon next. Never mind, the caregivers rushed in anyway.

There has always been this kind of opposing physics to good and evil. Evil begins from a point source—a cartridge of gunpowder, a nugget of uranium, a knot of hate in a single dark mind—and then it blows outward. Good gathers from everywhere around the blast and then moves—foolishly, perilously, wonderfully—toward it.

“The police were trying to keep us back, but I told them I was a physician and they let me through,” Dr. Natalia Stavas, a participant in the race, told the New York Times. Stavas performed CPR on a woman whom she suspected was dead; she applied a tourniquet to the leg of a man who surely would have been had she not been here. And it would have made a lot more survival sense for her to have done nothing of the kind.

(MORE: New Photos — Boston, the Day After)

Ethicists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have tried for a long time to figure out why we do these things—why we put ourselves in  mortal danger to save other people and, in so doing, defy our one great evolutionary imperative, which is to stay alive ourselves. There are the reductionist explanations, of course. It’s genetic mathematics, say the sociobiologists. It’s not that you’ll help anyone at all, just the ones with whom you have some biological connection. You’re twice as likely to come to the aid of your parents, siblings and children, with whom you share 50% of your genes, than you are to help your grandparents, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, with whom you share 25%. You move on down this way in tidy arithmetical lockstep through your cousins and great half-aunts and great-great-great uncles, with their 12.5% and 6.25% and 3.13% relatedness and it all makes a perfect kind of crystalline sense, until you ask why then you’d consider helping the bleeding stranger on the Boston streets, with whom you share no genes at all, and the sociobiolgists start a lot of hand-waving about tribal relatedness and collective genetics and you pretty much stop listening.

Then there are the neurological explanations. We’re sympathetic creatures, but not in the prettified way we usually use that word. Our brains are wired with mirror neurons—cells that make us mimic the behavior of the people around us, so that we laugh when they laugh and cry when they cry and yawn when they yawn. It feels like empathy, but it’s nothing of the kind. If you want to survive as a social creature, you have to behave like everyone else, and mirror neurons see to it that you do. That’s not empathy, that’s fitting in.

A similar mechanistic argument is made by scientists who scan the brain and actually see where goodness lives. Moral behavior is processed in the prefrontal cortex and the meso-limbic region. It follows a very mappable neuronal path that is no more complex than the one that allows you to throw a baseball or write your name, and that’s no more lyrical either.

And yet, all these answers just smell wrong. You can deconstruct a painting by explaining the salts and sulfides and esters that make up its pigments; you can parse a symphony by measuring the frequency and wavelength of the final crashing chord, but you’re missing the bigger picture.

(PHOTOS: Explosions in Boston)

Humans, instead, are guided by a sort of moral grammar—a primal ethical armature on which decency is built, just the way our language is built on syntax and tenses and conditional clauses. You  know when a sentence is right and when it isn’t even if you can’t quite explain why, and you know the same thing about goodness too. Psychologist Michael Schulman of Columbia University likes to pose the thought experiment of the kindergarteners who are taught two rules: it’s not OK to eat in the classroom and it’s not OK to hit other children. Tell the kids that the teacher has lifted the no-eating rule and they’ll happily eat. Tell them that the teacher has lifted the no-hitting rule and they’ll uniformly balk. “They’ll say, ‘Teacher shouldn’t say that,'” says Schulman. “That starts at a very young age.”

What starts young stays with us. Yes, we’re savage; yes, we’re brutal. It was a member of the home-team species, a homo sapiens like anyone else, who set the Boston bombs, and like it or not, that person is very close kin to you. But you’re close kin to the first-responders too, you’re close kin to the people who cried for the eight year old who died, not even knowing the child’s gender or name, because an eight year old simply shouldn’t die, and surely not the way this one did.

(MORE: Inside the Hunt for the Marathon Bomber)

The very empathy that brings us to those tears need not be wasted on the person who committed the crime. Twelve years ago, when the rubble of the Sept. 11 attacks was still smoldering, TIME’s Lance Morrow wrote, “Anyone who does not loathe the people who did these things, and the people who cheer them on, is too philosophical for decent company.” The same is true of the person or people responsible for the Boston slaughter.

But it’s equally true that the people who commit all of these crimes are, in many ways, the free radicals of  our social organism—the atoms that go bouncing about, unbonded to anything, doing damage to whatever they touch. The bonds they lack are the ones the rest of us share—the ones that make us pull away the snow fences and kneel in the blood pools. “Morality,” says psychologist and ethicist Jonathan Haidt, “is a team sport.” It’s far better to be part of that team than to be apart from it.

The original version of this story misspelled Dr. Natalia Stavas’ name.