Survival of the kindest

There was an odd debate in Norwegian newspapers this summer. Someone argued that evolution plays a role in human psychology, contrary to local academic consensus. A professor of biology replied that, why, that’s absurd, because then we’d have to legalize rape.

You .. miss out on things when you ignore an entire subfield of your own profession. Things like Born to be Good by Dacher Keltner, which destroys the myth that evolutionary perspectives on psychology justify selfishness.

The book is part of a trend in psychology that looks at the things in life that go well. Many have looked at how things go wrong. Only more recently has psychology begun to ask what is it that makes us happy, and good. Keltner looks at embarassment, smiling, laughter, teasing, touching, love, compassion and awe, and how each plays a role in happiness and social bonding.

The title is misleading. Keltner does not argue that people are naturally good. He argues that we’re wired with certain good capabilities. Embarassment and teasing allow us to peacefully navigate complicated social structures. Most of us do this automatically. That does not mean that we’re “born good”. Rather, we’re born with the capacity for it.

Keltner binds the themes together in the Confucian concept of jen, which he interpretes as bringing out the good in others. Used properly, that’s what all these abilities do.

This is only one side of the coin. But it’s one that receives less attention than it deserves, despite being more relevant to most of us.