Gene Expression

Wired for justice?

Since my last post was rather pessimistic, I thought I’d point to something a little more cheerful, Social Scientists Build Case for ‘Survival of the Kindest’:

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are challenging long-held beliefs that human beings are wired to be selfish. In a wide range of studies, social scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence to show we are evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive.

In contrast to “every man for himself” interpretations of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of “Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” and his fellow social scientists are building the case that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits.

They call it “survival of the kindest.”

“Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others,” said Keltner, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate. As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct.”

Human nature is mixed. There’s a bit of Jekyll and Hyde in everyone, and likely to variant extents as well. But empirically we know that human competencies are such that we can scale social organizations to an incredibly complex level. In fact I think evolutionary anthropologists have established with a high degree of certainty that the Hobbesian model of “all against all” is not grounded in the natural history of our species. Rather, we have been a rather groupish lineage for a long time, and recently we have been scaling up the size and complexity of our groups quite a bit.


  1. #1 tdaxp
    December 18, 2009

    Good post.

    Hobbes was writing of the state of nature, the period before civilization. In that context, he probably was right — As soon as behaviorally modern humans emerged who were capable of contracting with a government, civilization emerged in the near east.

  2. #2 TG
    December 19, 2009

    Not so much, tdaxp. Hunter-gatherer societies tended to be egalitarian and relatively peaceful.

  3. #3 stripey_cat
    December 21, 2009

    I’m amused (or hacked off) that Darwin, and by implication all biologists, are associated by the journalist with a selfish approach, but that the scientist himself quotes Darwin in support of group selection!

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