On Blood and Altruism

Scene 1:

The other day, I was walking down Santa Fe towards my usual bus stop and I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned my head and came face-to-face with a man, probably 6’2″, muscular, who was literally covered in blood. I kid you not, there was blood all over his face and hands, with fresh red rivulets dripping from one of his eyelids and his impressively disfigured nose. His face was not even swollen, indicating that he had recently acquired his facial adornments. I nearly shat my pants.

He asked me for money.

“Por favor, ¿una moneda señor? Para el bebé, tiene hambre y no puedo encontrar trabajo.”

Deer in the headlights. I’m sorry, what? Is there a tacit, “or I’ll pulverize you” at the end of that humble plea? Is this some kind of asshole tactic to get money from people, or did you just kill somebody?

Not knowing exactly how crazy this guy was, I fished quickly for a coin in my pocket, handed it to him, and watched as he broke into a wide smile and thanked me profusely.

This is so confusing. So you’re not going to pulverize me or demand my wallet (or take my backpack with my laptop in it?).

I asked him why he had blood all over his face.

“Perdón, em— por qué … el sangre?”

He answered: “El boxeo.”


I’m just going to believe that. Whatever you say, fella.


Scene 2:

The other day, I was on the 132 going from Córdoba to Rivadavia, listening to the cumbia blasting from my bus-neighbor’s headphones, when a homeless woman boarded the bus. She was an older lady, dark skinned with wild hair, dressed in an enormous quantity of oversized shirts and baggy olive-green pants. She wore no shoes. In her hands was a stack of paper- small ripped pieces of newspaper, arranged in a stack which she held carefully between both arms as one might hold a baby. She surveyed her audience and said nothing. She turned around and walked to the front of the bus, and started handing out the slips of paper.

One by one, she offered a ripped piece of newspaper each person on the bus, extending her arm gently and retreating quickly if someone waved to signal disinterest. She worked slowly through everyone at the front of the bus, then through the people standing in the center, and eventually arrived at my seat, the first of the seats in the back of the bus.

She offered me a slip of paper. She offered it to me slowly, cautiously, as if I might reach out and strike her arm away. We made eye contact. I took the slip of paper.

She kept on through the back of the bus, shuffling slowly through the crowd. She reached the last person, straightened up, put the remaining papers into one of her many pockets, and walked back towards the front of the bus.

One person in front was already holding a two-peso bill and waved it in her direction. She approached him, received the money, and dipped her head a little.

“Gracias, señor.”

Other hands were outstretched holding coins or bills. She went from person to person, dipping her head each time as she received their offering.

I looked around at my bus-neighbors. Almost all of them were holding or fishing for money for when the woman came their way (except for my bus-neighbor, who was still with his cumbia and whatever was outside the window).

I, too, retrieved a 2-peso bill from my wallet and sat waiting, watching, almost excited for my turn to give my money to this woman.

Well, she eventually did come my way, and I gave my pesos to her, as did almost everyone else on the bus. She thanked me and each other person, and then everyone at once— “Gracias a todos”— and then God— “y gracias al dios”— and then got off at the next bus stop. Her pockets were literally bulging.


I do have a few thoughts about what was going on here, but I’d love to hear your ideas as well, my dear readers, as I’m still somewhat perplexed by these two situations.

First off, bloody-man.

Lets first assume that he was actually boxing and then decided, immediately after being thoroughly defeated and not winning any money, that he needed to find a way to feed his baby.

Why didn’t he clean himself off first? He literally had not wiped his face or stopped the bleeding, and his nose was clearly in bad shape. Did he consciously understand that his menacing state would result in an easy few pesos?

I suppose that’s somewhat logical, although perhaps ineffective, as I imagine people would be likely to either run away or give the bare minimum to get him to go away.

It also seems like a quick way to get noticed by the police, although the police are much less of a presence in Buenos Aires than in most parts of the USA…

Alternatively, if this was an act or technique that this man regularly employed to ‘scare up’ some money, do you think it would be effective? If this were the case, I would have to conject that it would be effective because one would not undergo such regular pain and humiliation unless the payoff was significant.

Really though, he was big and bulky enough that the blood was unnecessary, so I strongly doubt that this guy had actually planned this as a technique, so…


As for paper-slip-lady:

This situation I find very intriguing from both a psychological and sociological point of view. Why did the woman hand out the slips of paper, and why were people so willing to give to her? Both parties are worth consideration— the woman herself, and her audience, the crowd.

First off, I think that this woman knew exactly what she was doing. Of course I can’t know for sure, but I bet she carefully developed this technique after trying other cadging tactics and judging their relative success. Everything was done just right: her image— pitiful, but calm and respectful with some air of dignity; her interactions— which were deliberate and seemingly meaningful as communicated through eye contact and head-dipping, as if your contribution really made all the difference; and her timing— the entire process took no more than 3 or 4 minutes, within which time she effectively built a micro-connection with each person and left them with something.

Which leads us to question the crowd: why was everyone so willing to give to her?

I think that the woman effectively played upon several fundamental human (animal?) psych/sociological traits. The first being a selfish altruism and the second being a group effect. I am an expert on neither subject, so I’ll feed you my interpretation and those links and let me google it for you.

Selfish altruism has been widely studied and can be grounded in psychology and beneath that, evolutionary theory. Humans are social beasts and thus lived in groups during all of our development, and for most of that time we were hunting-and-gathering, thereby living in societies where sharing resources was crucial if we were to survive. Helping the group, therefore, was evolutionarily rewarded and hot-wired into us through psychological selection.

However, bringing this back to paper-slip-lady, what did the crowd (including myself) get from our selfish selflessness?

Well, a ripped piece of newspaper.

But of course, something mentally more. This part, I think, is different for each person based on their experiences and ethical tendencies, but almost surely exists in everyone. Perhaps it’s justifying one’s own circumstantial privilege.  For others it may be a sense of common humanity, as if s/he is helping a member of kin in need. I’m sure there are many more mental justifications, and I’d be interested to hear what they are specifically for you— why do you stop and give money to those who ask for it? What would persuade you to do so or to alternatively walk by in pointed silence. I do not think there is any shame in saying that it makes us feel good. That feeling is deeply engrained in our inner animal and has served us well in building connections, communities, and societies of efficiency and scale. Where do you draw the ethical lines here?

While I do think that paper-slip-lady has developed an innovative technique, I also think that she is still and forever at the mercy of the group effect, which is why her presentation is so important.

In that situation on colectivo 132, we, the audience-group of humans displayed a group effect shared with almost all other animals. When one rabbit detects danger, all rabbits hide in their holes. When one rabbit comes out to survey the scene, it may or may not get eaten. When two rabbits poke out their ears, they may or may not get eaten. But when three or seven rabbits emerge, all of the rabbits come out to play, because they know that the other rabbits know that the coast is clear.

So I bet that it works both ways for paper-slip-lady; that if she doesn’t nail the initial presentation, very few people contribute. On the other hand, we, the audience-group of humans could have then been guilty of the fourth reich, as we all bit that bait and were even excited to do so.

But what is this conversation really about? I think it would be very interesting to do a quantitative research study on panhandling tactics. Such a study may exist—I’m no scholar on the subject—but something about these situations is telling about human behavior and a data table might shed some light. 

What are your thoughts? It’s a favorite and classic debate: is selfless altruism possible? In humans? In animals?

And does it matter? In both situations, they got my pesos…

On Human Nature

I’d like to share a truly beautiful natural metaphor that I see in the praying mantis’s life cycle. As a longtime admirer and mantis hobbyist, I am repeatedly stunned by these incredibly similar, yet starkly alien creatures.

Every spring around the world, mantis nymphs emerge from their foamy egg sacks. Almost magically, like so many instinctual phenomena, between twenty and three hundred tiny translucent mantids emerge dangling from a fine silky thread. Upon close examination, the mantis nymphs are remarkably well formed and proportioned. Unlike so many creatures, including most mammals and insects, mantises begin their lives in almost the precise image of its adult body.

As with most creatures, mantids grow over time. Unlike mammals, they do not grow slowly and evenly, but rather undergo ecdysis several times throughout their maturation until they reach their adult form. This process, known as molting, is the literal shedding of the insect’s exoskeleton. In preparation for a molt, mantids climb to an elevated position, hang upside down, wriggle their abdomen rhythmically, and carefully crawl out of their dermal jackets.

With each molt, the mantis grows; however, the original proportions and image of its nymphal state are preserved, with the exception of the development of various secondary sex characteristics. The most significant molting event signifies the mantid’s entrance into adulthood: wings. Upon the mantid’s final molt, small wing buds are shed to reveal impossibly thinly veined membranes. The mantis then flushes these membranes with bodily fluid, causing them to unfurl. However, the rest of the mantis is remarkably identical to its nymphal form.

Molting can be a difficult and dangerous procedure, and an error such can result in the debilitation of legs, joints, wings, or any intricately shaped protrusions. A mismolt can be as innocuous a single deformed leg or wing, or as disastrous as a crippling of the raptorial limbs, which can often lead to death. However, with each subsequent molt, the mantis has the capacity to shed its deformed exoskeleton and regrow any parts that are broken or weak.

I would now like to depart from biology and enter the infinitely more interesting world of metaphoric thought.

If we can look past the bug-eyed, the mantid’s developmental progression appears to be an easily adaptable metaphor for our own human development. Foremost, I would suggest that humans, like mantids, begin their lives as a miniature representation of their adult character. That is to say, upon birth, each human possesses a guiding kernel that might be deemed our “essence,” or who we “truly” are. This, in combination with a host of influential environmental factors, is what decides whether we spend our childhood drawing and painting, collecting rocks, reading avidly, or even bullying our peers and causing trouble.

However, just as mantids repeatedly shed their outermost layer in favor of a larger and more robust self, humans undergo this same process. With each new experience, each previously unknown situation we encounter, and each obstacle that presents itself along the way, we molt. Clearly this is literally false (or is it?), but also incredibly true. They say hardship breeds character. According to the mantis, I agree. Thomas Paine writes in 1773, “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.” (thank you 10th grade US History!)

And we have mismolts. Our exoskeletons often tear and leave leathery pieces bound around joints and limbs and cause all kinds of mangled body parts and perceived degradations of our character. We forget to do our homework. We refuse to do our homework. We miss classes and don’t show up for work. We refuse to do either out of anger and spite. We forget to call on someone’s birthday (or refuse because they didn’t call on yours). We crash cars, lose large amounts of money, cheat on our spouses and generally mess our own lives up- frequently.

But biology is malleable; when young mantids have a mismolt for whatever reason- perhaps the humidity is too low, or the mantis wasn’t quite developmentally ready to shed its skin, or some environmental factor interfered with the process, all is not lost. With each molt, the outermost layer is shed, allowing the mantid’s pure and functional kernel to be re-exposed. Redemption. A second chance- or a third, fourth, or seventeenth; unlike praying mantids, humans do not experience a mere six or seven molting events. We, as adaptable and intelligent mammals, are constantly molting. Always. There is no such thing as a “final molt,” for we are infinitely evolving, adding to our character and knowledge of ourselves and the world. This, I believe, is the most integral and fundamentally intrinsic human character: infinite molting capacity.

That all being said, I encourage all of you, my proverbial royal readers, to actively molt. Seek out new experiences, do things that you’ve never thought to do- make a bucket list every day or every week or every ten years- and repeatedly add new layers to that kernel that guides your way. Take advantage of our infinite human capacity to grow and heal. Mess up. Make mistakes, experience hardship, climb over Kilamanjaro until your oxygen tank runs out or you get paged for work or you stub your toe or something. Try to avoid those big mistakes- our biology is impressively resilient, but there is certainly a point at which recovery is increasingly improbable. Keep your raptorial limbs functional and healthy- you’ve got to be able to catch crickets and crawl around and eat your spouse’s heads and all. But trust in your humanity, that even those deep wounds may heal with time and active molting.

Good luck to you all. With the start of the new semester I may blog more intermittently, but check back often! Feel free to leave comments and share your own experiences- molting or mismolting. Until next time,