October 5, 2010

The Origins of Kindness

Thirst for Fairness May Have Helped Us Survive, The New York Times, SCIENCE, July 4, 2011
Survival of the Kindest:  The Evolution of Sympathy, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 2011
Welcome, Stranger, The Evolution of Generosity, The Economist, July 30, 2011
Evolution of Human Generosity, Science Daily, July 25, 2011

Cartoon by Tony Auth

Do we need religion to be ethical? by Thomas Plante, Psychology Today, March 27, 2011;  Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed by Martin A. Nowak with Roger Highfield - Book Review by Oren Harmon, The New York Times, Sunday Book Review, April 8, 2011

The Evolution of Nice

As for human altruism it seems to me there are at least two facets.  First is the degree to which one feels concerned or unhappy over the suffering or danger of another, ranging from none to extremely.  Some care deeply about a wide range of dangers to their fellow humans, others care some while others could care less.  I for one am greatly saddened, even sickened at the sight of human beings physically fighting, street fighting, especially for the one who is being badly beaten by the other.  Others relish such grotesque spectacles and care not, and in some cases seem to enjoy, what the beaten person is suffering.

The second factor is if, and to what degree, the first party would risk his well-being in acting in response to his/her concerns or unhappiness over the harm or danger to another.  Some would face great danger to assist another, other some danger and still others would take no risk at all.  I learned in the Nairobi embassy bombing of 1998 that if I felt I could help someone leave with me while at the same time successfully escape a freshly bombed building, I would do it.  Would I throw myself on a grenade in a foxhole to save my buddies?  I really don't know. Maybe not.  Would I do it for my family?  I think so.  Some would, others wouldn't.

Whether or not a person engages in an act of altruism depends on how dire the circumstances of the other are, how much those circumstances impact the thoughts and emotions of the observer, and whether the degree to which the observer is willing to risk being harmed.

Might there have arisen in human evolutionary history, and still exist, "selective values" for individuals who take risks to assist others in need, especially those in their own group?  I think so.  Those who die for others in their group may have reproduced beforehand or for some unrelated reason bore no progeny thereafter.  Therefore the legacy of altruism is not biological, however, it is cultural.  This legacy is memic, not genetic.  Are there any legacies of such behavior from the past in the human genome?  Maybe.  But to know for certain would require incontrovertible evidence of altruism-producing genetic, physiological and developmental entities and processes.  Are we likely to one day possess such evidence?  I doubt it but I don't really know.  I think human altruism is primarily of a psychological and cultural nature, not biological.  I remain considerably more swayed by arguments for the cultural evolutionary emergence and retention of altruism than I am by arguments that it is contained in and thereby inherited in our genetic makeup.

Suggested Reading:

The Science of Compassion by David DeSteno, The New York Times, Sunday Review - The Opinion Pages, July 14, 2012
Kindness is Adaptive - Practice It
And you thought it was a dog eat dog world and getting worse all the time. Actually, in the long term, it's survival of the kindest and most compassionate....
The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness (2010) by Oren Harman
"For Goodness Sake" http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/books/review/deWaal-t.html
Nice Guys Finish First by David Brooks, The New York Times, OPINION, May 16, 2011
Are We Really Nicer Than Vampire Bats?, The New York Times, OPINION, Comments on "Nice Guys Finish First by David Brooks, May 19, 2011
The Social Animal:  The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement by David Brooks, reviewed by psychotherapist Gary Greenberg, The Nation, June 6, 2011
The Pathological Altruist Gives Till It Hurts by Natalie Angier, The New York Times, Science, October 3, 2011.  See also:  http://select.nytimes.com/mem/tnt.html?module=talerts&cskey=
Killing With Kindness by John Derbyshsire, The American Conservative, July 21, 2011, a review of What's Wrong With Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment by David Stove, 2011
New Study Finds First Links Between Genes And Moral Judgments, Georgetown University, October 5, 2011
Make or Break? Social Networking Tames Cheats, The Economist, The Evolution of Co-operation, November 19, 2011


Just War Theory Man said...

Jim, this is a friend--the Nbi refcoord from 2003 to 2006. I commented below on "Belief, Science, and Survival" Thought I would try to grab your attention.

Jim Lassiter said...

I thought that was you, dear friend. Have thought of you often and fondly since we met and hoped I would one day hear from you again. I saw your comment on my other post last night and will reply. Thanks for commenting. Wishing for your continued enjoyment of your current "paradise island" assignment. Jim

Just War Theory Man said...

Are you retired? It's a very fancy blog! I'm sure you're keeping busy, whatever you are up to.

And I do look forward to seeing your comment! (Say--didja read my book? ;-))

Jim Lassiter said...

Thanks, JWTM, Google blogspot made it easy. Indeed, retired Nov '07. Been reading, writing and fishing here south of ATL, ever since. Just scoped your book on Amazon and put it in my cart. Congratulations! Look forward to reading it. Jim

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