August 9, 2006

To Be Human

2006 1522 page29 capn May 15, 2006, 40 climbers trudged past a dying man as they attempted to summit Everest. The man they passed was David Sharp, a 34-year-old climber from England who later froze to death.
The top of Everest is called the death zone, due to its thin air and freezing temperatures. In that zone it’s difficult to ensure your own survival, let alone another’s. “When you’re up there and can barely breathe, you can’t eat, you can barely drink—all you can really do is plod on,” said Jan Arnold who has climbed Everest herself, and whose husband Rob Hall1 died on Everest while trying to save his client’s life. In defending the climbers, she continued, “What it would involve to launch a rescue would almost be beyond the brain capacity of a person at high altitude.”2
Yet many other climbers were outraged over Sharp’s death. Everest pioneer Edmund Hillary stated: “Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain.”3 Sir Chris Bonington, who summited Everest in 1985, said: “It is a human responsibility to go to someone’s help in need.”4
While climbers debated the ethics of the death zone, I was struck by most people’s gut response—the climbers should have intervened. Even though the hikers didn’t know Sharp, even though they too were on the edge of death, even though they’d spent time and money to make it to the top, even though stopping might not have made a difference, the consensus was: the climbers were responsible for Sharp.
2006 1522 page29One cannot imagine a more extreme version of the Good Samaritan (or, in this case, lack thereof), and yet the outcry transcended religious beliefs. Not one of the interviews or articles I read invoked God, or faith, or spirituality. Rather, people felt that the climbers were obligated to help by virtue of being human.
Indeed, in spite of all the cruelty in the world, it appears that the desire to help others is hardwired into our DNA.
In a study of 24 toddlers researcher Felix Warneken discovered that babies want to help. With each child Warneken would “accidentally” drop items such as a clothespin or a book, and in response each baby came to his aid. If it looked as if Warneken needed help, the child would crawl over and hand him the object. However, if Warneken threw the item down, the child didn’t assist. The study is more remarkable because Warneken never said thank you. The babies’ motivations were purely altruistic.5
The impulse to help others doesn’t seem to have an easy evolutionary explanation. Perhaps one could argue that through helping others one ultimately helps oneself. But is that really the case? Consider a living-organ donation. To give a kidney, one must undergo surgery and place oneself at a health risk. Yet in a telephone survey of 1,009 adults, 24 percent of respondents said they would freely donate a kidney to a stranger, and 76 percent said they would donate to a friend.6
Although organ donation is perhaps the ultimate in altruism, one can see smaller acts every day. As a traveler, I am frequently indebted to the kindness of strangers. I think of a woman in Japan who gave me money after I foolishly ran out, a family in South Korea who picked up my sister and me while we were hitchhiking in the rain, and a fellow tourist in Austria who noticed I was lost and escorted me to my destination.
So why all this kindness in a world that can also be admittedly brutal? I believe the desire to help others comes from our Creator. Genesis tells us that “God created man in his own image.” 7As Christians, we believe that that image is the Ultimate Good. While we have certainly fallen from the ideal of creation, we have kept a spark of goodness, which, ironically enough, is known as our humanity.
Let’s return to Everest. A week after Sharp’s death, another climbing group came across another nearly dead climber. Led by Daniel Mazur, the team radioed for assistance, and then spent four hours nurturing Lincoln Hall (the debilitated climber) with food, tea, and oxygen. By the time help arrived, it was too late for Mazur’s team to attempt the top. Brash, who was part of the rescue group, called his disappointment “absolutely colossal.” But he didn’t think their actions were special. “It just seemed like the only thing to do.”8
1Rob Hall died during the infamous Everest tragedy of 1996 documented in the memoir Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer.
2Pete Thomas, “Morality on a Slippery Slope,”, June 1, 2006.
4Alan Cowall, “Letter From Britain: Drive to Scale Everest—Whose Business Is It?” International Herald Tribune, May 31, 2006.
5Lauren Neergaard (AP), “Toddlers Try to Help Out Adults, Study Shows,” ABC News Good Morning America, March 2, 2006.
6Aaron Spital, “Public Attitudes Toward Kidney Donation by Friends and Altruistic Strangers in
the United States,” April 27, 2001. University of Rochester School of Medicine, Rochester, New York.
7Genesis 1:27, NIV.
8“Calgary Man Says Everest Rescue Was ‘the Only Thing to Do,’” June 2, 2006. CBC Calgary, 


Sari Fordham is working on a postgraduate degree at the University of Minnesota.