03 June 2010

More Mr Nice Guy

If you want to succeed in life you have to look after your own interests first, right!? Wrong! Science shows that we have evolved to be compassionate and cooperative.


Many of us were brought up to believe that the world is a rough, dog-eat-dog sort of place. Men especially are led to think that the way to get to the top of the pile, be it at school, on the sports field, or in business, is to look after themselves first and to be aggressive, tough and competitive. It’s the survival of the fittest. That is, after all, how we evolved as a species. Darwin told us so. Right?!

Cooperation beats competition

Wrong! It might come as a surprise, but as far as human evolution is concerned, Darwin’s opinion diverged as much from that of most of his contemporaries as it does from that of many of his modern-day admirers. He actually believed that empathy, not egoism or competitiveness, is a human being’s strongest instinct and a universal trait that has helped us survive and flourish as a species.

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the old man had a valid point. It would appear that we were actually hardwired to be kind. According to US psychologist Dacher Keltner, the co-director of the University of California Bekeley’s Greater Good Science Centre [], “evolution has crafted a species – us – with remarkable tendencies towards kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic tasks of evolution – survival, gene replication and smoothly functioning groups.”


In a simplified fashion, the theory of the evolution of human compassion goes something like this. When our distant ancestors decided to start walking about on two legs, it gave them a number of advantages over their competitors, but also caused a major rearrangement and narrowing of the pelvis in pregnant females. As our predecessors were also evolving constantly expanding brains, this made it physically impossible for fully-developed, big-headed babies to be born. The solution: human infants are born very prematurely, which explains why they’re so helpless and in need of years of attentive parenting, much more so than is the case in other animals.

Says Keltner, “because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others.” This argument can be extended to adult humans as well. We’re not really physically strong enough to make it on our own as individuals. “Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacity to care for those in need and to cooperate”.

Ancient intensive care

Keltner insists that “our capacity for virtue and cooperation and our moral sense are old in evolutionary terms” and this seems to be supported by archaeological evidence. Scientists who have studied the severely deformed, 530 000-year-old skull of a hominid child believe that it provides evidence for compassionate care of severely disabled individuals even that far back in pre-history. Without loving and intensive support form his or her parents and community, the child who probably suffered from a debilitating genetic disorder, would never have been able to survive for as long as it did.

Viva Las Vagus

According to Keltner, “recent studies have revealed that our capacity for caring, play, reverence and modesty is built into our brains, bodies and social practices” and we’re even equipped with an organ for compassion: the little-known vagus nerve. This bundle of nerves which originates in the top of the spinal column and connects to most of our internal organs is unique to mammals and plays a pivotal role in our capacity for compassion, caring and kindness.

The vagus nerve is thought to be closely connected to the body’s receptor network for oxytocin, the natural feel-good chemical. It also helps to control your heart rate and breathing and creates that fuzzy feeling you get when someone gives you a hug or when you see a cute puppy. Research suggests that this nerve bundle is associated with the promotion of altruism, gratitude, cooperation, love, happiness and giving as well as the sense that all human beings share a common humanity, no matter what their social or ethnic background.

Born to be good

In the past people thought our emotions are essentially molded by our culture, but while cultural influences may frequently create rather unpleasant traits – patriarchy leads to gender divisions, materialism makes us greedy, fundamentalism and nationalism make us aggressive towards others, etc. – it would appear that positive emotions like kindness actually have more biological, neurological and evolutionary underpinnings.

So what should we make of all this? Simple: being kind is good for us. All of us – even for us men! So fellows, lay off the competitive machismo once in a while, think “survival of the kindest” and give someone a brotherly hug.

Read these books on the subject:

The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness by Dacher Keltner

The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal

Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner


(Andrew Luyt, Health24, June 2010)


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