Forget Survival of the Fittest: It Is Kindness That Counts
A psychologist probes how altruism, Darwinism and neurobiology mean that we can succeed by not being cutthroat.
Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, investigates these questions from multiple angles, and often generates results that are both surprising and challenging. In his new book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, Keltner weaves together scientific findings with personal narrative to uncover the innate power of human emotion to connect people with each other, which he argues is the path to living the good life. Keltner was kind enough to take some time out to discuss altruism, Darwinism, neurobiology and practical applications of his findings with David DiSalvo.
Born to Be Good is something less than the subtitle (The Science of a Meaningful Life) suggests. More accurately, it covers the science of certain selected emotions and, more narrowly still, primarily the research of certain psychologists, bolstered by a bit of neuroscience. Most specifically, it focuses in large part (although not exclusively) on the work of Paul Ekman (the author's mentor) and the research of Keltner himself (along with his students).
Darwin himself observed that sympathetic communities are more likely to produce healthier offspring than cruel ones. Human history shows that compassion always pulls through in times of war. And new studies of our body's physiology show that caretaking emotions are wired within our nervous systems.
Emotion has often been downplayed, restrained, indeed even belittled, in comparison to intellect. We must suppress emotion and let intellect roam free if we are to discover new things, solve life's riddles, and survive in an increasingly competitive and academic business world. Excitement, it is said, kills. Although true and essential when, say, doing a heart bypass, maneuvering a crippled jetliner into safe landing, or simply driving down the highway, we should not forget that — as the book so plainly states — had it not been for our emotions, we as a species might not be here today.