Social scientists build case for 'survival of the kindest'

Social scientists build case for 'survival of the kindest'
Photo illustration by Jonathan Payne

( -- 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 by , 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.”

Empathy in our genes

Keltner's team is looking into how the human capacity to care and cooperate is wired into particular regions of the brain and nervous system. One recent study found compelling evidence that many of us are genetically predisposed to be empathetic.

The study, led by UC Berkeley graduate student Laura Saslow and Sarina Rodrigues of Oregon State University, found that people with a particular variation of the oxytocin gene receptor are more adept at reading the emotional state of others, and get less stressed out under tense circumstances.

Informally known as the "cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is secreted into the bloodstream and the brain, where it promotes , nurturing and romantic love, among other functions.

"The tendency to be more empathetic may be influenced by a single gene,” Rodrigues said.

The more you give, the more respect you get

While studies show that bonding and making social connections can make for a healthier, more meaningful life, the larger question some UC Berkeley researchers are asking is, "How do these traits ensure our survival and raise our status among our peers?"

One answer, according to UC Berkeley social psychologist and sociologist Robb Willer is that the more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield. In one recent study, Willer and his team gave participants each a modest amount of cash and directed them to play games of varying complexity that would benefit the "public good.” The results, published in the journal American Sociological Review, showed that participants who acted more generously received more gifts, respect and cooperation from their peers and wielded more influence over them.

"The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated,” Willer said. "But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status.”
"Given how much is to be gained through generosity, increasingly wonder less why people are ever generous and more why they are ever selfish,” he added.

Cultivating the greater good

Such results validate the findings of such "positive psychology” pioneers as Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research in the early 1990s shifted away from mental illness and dysfunction, delving instead into the mysteries of human resilience and optimism.

While much of the positive psychology being studied around the nation is focused on personal fulfillment and happiness, UC Berkeley researchers have narrowed their investigation into how it contributes to the greater societal good.

One outcome is the campus's Greater Good Science Center, a West Coast magnet for research on gratitude, compassion, altruism, awe and positive parenting, whose benefactors include the Metanexus Institute, Tom and Ruth Ann Hornaday and the Quality of Life Foundation.

Christine Carter, executive director of the Greater Good Science Center, is creator of the "Science for Raising Happy Kids” Web site, whose goal, among other things, is to assist in and promote the rearing of "emotionally literate” children. Carter translates rigorous research into practical parenting advice. She says many parents are turning away from materialistic or competitive activities, and rethinking what will bring their families true happiness and well-being.

"I've found that parents who start consciously cultivating gratitude and generosity in their children quickly see how much happier and more resilient their children become,” said Carter, author of "Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents” which will be in bookstores in February 2010. "What is often surprising to parents is how much happier they themselves also become."

The sympathetic touch

As for college-goers, UC Berkeley psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton has found that cross-racial and cross-ethnic friendships can improve the social and academic experience on campuses. In one set of findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he found that the cortisol levels of both white and Latino students dropped as they got to know each over a series of one-on-one get-togethers. Cortisol is a hormone triggered by stress and anxiety.

Meanwhile, in their investigation of the neurobiological roots of positive emotions, Keltner and his team are zeroing in on the aforementioned oxytocin as well as the vagus nerve, a uniquely mammalian system that connects to all the body's organs and regulates heart rate and breathing.

Both the vagus nerve and oxytocin play a role in communicating and calming. In one UC Berkeley study, for example, two people separated by a barrier took turns trying to communicate emotions to one another by touching one other through a hole in the barrier. For the most part, participants were able to successfully communicate sympathy, love and gratitude and even assuage major anxiety.

Researchers were able to see from activity in the threat response region of the brain that many of the female participants grew anxious as they waited to be touched. However, as soon as they felt a sympathetic touch, the vagus nerve was activated and was released, calming them immediately.

"Sympathy is indeed wired into our brains and bodies; and it spreads from one person to another through touch,” Keltner said.

The same goes for smaller mammals. UC Berkeley psychologist Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney, a professor of biological psychiatry and neurology at McGill University, found that rat pups whose mothers licked, groomed and generally nurtured them showed reduced levels of stress hormones, including cortisol, and had generally more robust immune systems.

Overall, these and other findings at UC Berkeley challenge the assumption that nice guys finish last, and instead support the hypothesis that humans, if adequately nurtured and supported, tend to err on the side of compassion.

“This new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion is finally catching up with Darwin's observations nearly 130 years ago, that sympathy is our strongest instinct,” Keltner said.

Provided by University of California, Berkeley

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Dec 08, 2009
This is only true if the sociopaths and narcissists are removed from society, e.g. politicians and cult (in the broadest sense) leaders.

Dec 08, 2009
I think the key point here is reward and punishment. Being kind is no good if no-one recognises it, and similarly being selfish works unless - as indicated in the article - people are willing to shun and loathe those who are mean and selfish.

To me this shows up the fallacy of so called "liberal" attitudes to punishment - pseudo liberal would be a better term. Those who think wrongdoers need merely a gentle talking to may in fact be interfering with an important process.

Without punishment, the flip side of reward - either in an active form or by withdrawal of privileges - we fail to maintain the bias towards decent behaviour.

And as we see, there are still plenty of selfish people ready to exploit an undiscriminating kind person.

Dec 08, 2009
I think we should make sure we know what "self" we are talking about before we talk about "selfishness".

It is quite possible that there are multiple "selves" involved here that we aren't carefully differentiating. An individual cell in my body can be regarded as a "self", and has it's own needs, yet it is part of a larger system, my body, which has different needs. So too, a human body, regarded by many as the obvious boundary of self, is also just a part of a much larger system that started knitting itself together with the advent of language and the rise of human culture. This culture/society is also a self, and its needs are different from the needs of an individual human body. Shouldn't we expect competition and compromise between these various levels of "self"? Aren't the "normal" ethical/moral values aimed at protecting the larger self more than the individual human body, making us choose allegiance to our own body or society in each circumstance? Thus, conservative vs. liberal

Dec 08, 2009
Sorry... thus, conservative vs. liberal attitudes are readily understood as conflict between levels of self. And neither is completely right or wrong, as both selves are dependent on the other. Just as my body depends on the functions of my cells, while my cells depend on the functions of my whole body. Human beings have the right to look out for themselves, and the meta-human being of society has a right to look out for its own interests. And they also have a selfish interest to look out for each other too! And how terrible it is sometimes to be a human mind, bridging the gap between the two selves, caught in the middle of the conflict, sometimes finding ourselves on the side of our humanity and sometimes on the side of our meta-humanity. Amazingly, we even have brain structures somewhat specialized for each self (lower brain "fight or flight" vs. higher brain abstract reasoning).

Dec 08, 2009
Really? I always thought of liberal vs conservative attitudes as those of idiots who can't realize mutually-exclusive propositions are meant to be negotiated through conditions and not meant to be simultaneous solutions to the problem, which expresses mutually-exclusive propositions. So because they see half the problems they go on about as problems with no *universal solutions they never agree to anything and smash their faces in to brick walls until one of them dies, then the other wins, and everyone else loses regardless.

It's hilarious, debates like those between them go on for hours, days, years... with them stating facts and truths while remaining in perpetual confusion about why neither is winning the argument.

Yea, I have an a$$hole rant for all extremists groups. It pretty much goes the same way... it's not a coincidence that people tend to break down in to wild extremes you know!

Ah, the subtleties of logic which source as the reason for most on-going tantrums of insanity.

Dec 08, 2009
The evangelists of anti-socialism completely missed the point: if you want to be truly happy and fulfilled, be compassionate and sociable. That's the moral of the story. Sure, you can be "successful" in life regardless, but "successful" and "happy" are not the same state of being. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, either.

Of course, any mention of altruism or sympathy always calls forth the hackles of Randian zealots. They can't acknowledge such basic attributes of Humanity, because that would mean admitting that either they themselves are acting like antisocial sub-Humans, or that they've been hypocritically denying a basic component of their own being. Oh, the horror.

Dec 08, 2009

I think my statement was in basic agreement with yours. The main thesis is that conflict arises naturally in a system with hierarchical levels of "self". So, as you say...

...debates like those between them go on for hours, days, years... with them stating facts and truths while remaining in perpetual confusion about why neither is winning the argument.

From any one perspective neither side can win such an argument. Only from the global perspective can logical solutions be found. You mentioned something about logic or reason. But isn't what is logical or rational relative to your knowledge/perspective. That is why seemingly mutually exclusive arguments can simultaneously seem logical. They are both logical, within their limited domains, but fail in the context of other domains. This drives us to find a new perspective that contains both domains.

Dec 08, 2009
Speaking of liberal/conservative: If this gene influences personality traits that makes one more or less con/lib (which we know is heritable [Alford & Hibbing]) could this therefore be a "political gene"?

We do know that starting around 100,000 years ago, both the size of human societies and our genetic adaptation rates exploded. Such traits that bonded larger societies would be selected for.

That's what I've been working on:

I have a big excerpt of the book "The Origin of Political Species" (Forward by John Hibbing) available there for free.

Dec 08, 2009
Now exactly why is it necessary to justify, by science, the lessons of the ages? I assume it is an attempt to say that "humanism" and "religion" and all else that makes up civilization is just another instance of natural selection...

...which then of course reduces to the absurd string of questions leading back to why there is a natural universe and why does it seem to support evolution: physical, biological and social.

Like so much of the social sciences, I don't see the point of building up a complex academic frame when the system offers no operational results that have not already been achieved by mothers, fathers and pastors/priests over many generations.

Dec 08, 2009
"The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated,” Willer said. "But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status.”

Is that not obvious?

Dec 09, 2009
"The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated,� Willer said. "But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status.�

Is that not obvious?

Maybe in your Sunday Church. Not in the world at large.

Dec 09, 2009
I don't understand how difficult it is to understand the concept of FITTEST. Darwin never said "survival of the whitest, or most beautiful, or thinnest, or egocentric" and the fact that so many people are openly interpreting the concept of fittest is exactly why it isn't true.

I'm going to settle this once and for all, Darwin was right, and if you agree with Darwin you are right as well. If you disagree with Darwin you are wrong. This is not open for discussion, because if you do happen to "disagree" with Darwin you automatically say that no physical law exists and that the odds of every scenario for anything down to the elementary particles of this world are equally likely to happen. If you don't understand this then please shut your mouth and do some reading. You think you're smarter than the top physicists in this world? Of course you do -- because not only are you egocentric, you are downright anthropocentric -- proving your egoism once more.

When will people learn, Darwin?

Dec 09, 2009
How wonderfully objective (and downright arrogant) is Objectivist! *If you disagree with Darwin you are wrong* says she. And then she goes on to equate physical laws with the bizarre and unscientific notion of people coming from bacteria.
*I'm going to settle this once and for all* she says. Oh, Thank You, objectivist, you have proved your egoism once more!
BTW, *Fitness* is perhaps the most contentious concept in evolutionary biolgy* according to darwinist Diane Paul, and John Beatty said, *The precise meaning of fitness has yet to be settled, in spite of the fact - or perhaps because of the fact - that the term is so central to evolutionary thought.*

Dec 09, 2009
I see you don't read much, have you heard of Ayn Rand? Look her up and you'll see what an Objectivist is, I can tell you your childish assumptions lead you nowhere.

And my god you are smart, do you really -- honestly -- fail to see how "Oh, Thank You, objectivist, you have proved your egoism once more!" further proves my point!? Do you think I'm an exception to human egoism? No I'm not, and the fact that you assume that I place myself outside of such simple equations simply because you do in your anthropocentric view of the world, doesn't make it so.

Also it slightly hurts my brain that you don't understand the concept of evolution yet you read physorg. This isn't a concept of life, this is a concept of fundamental harmony of physical interactions. Life just happens to be a part of it, a very, very small part of it. But you wouldn't see that, now would you? No in your view life is everything, and you are the sole center of the universe. Please, do some reading before further write.

Dec 09, 2009

Please, you're quoting many worlds without understanding the concept of it. You simply can't say that we live in a world of everything simply because in the 11th dimension everything can occur. We live in one of the possible worlds, and we will never be able to know precisely which one. We can however narrow it down to e.g. a world where the sun exists, and both leptons and quarks have 1/2 spin, and when we observe this we collapse that very wave function.

In the 11th dimension anything is possible because it governs an infine number of inifities but our 5th dimension only holds one axis of time for us, the 4th dimension -- which governs our 3 dimensional world. I have the feeling you don't quite understand M-theory as well as you think you do.

Dec 09, 2009
Victor Frankl observed while in a Nazi concentration camp, that some prisoners had experiences of life reckoning and triumph within themselves, and others felt that their lives were essentially finished and gave up on any sliver of hope for a better life. He mentioned that everything can be taken away from a man save the last of the human freedoms - the ability to decide one's attitude in a given set of circumstances.
I feel this essentially says that we all have the ability to choose one's thoughts and behaviors from moment to moment. It's a skill to be mindful of its practice. We have to evolve spiritually too, or we don't have long before we go belly up.

It's painful how children see us as the only models they have, and over time, succumb to the same indoctrinations, and watching hundreds of instances of violence and egocentrism on t.v. It's what they've come to believe about how to conduct themselves. We must set a better example. Our salvation is nurturing kindness.

Dec 09, 2009
Objectivist's main point was so clear and piercing the rest of his blabbering arrogance should have been ignored. Clearly most individuals are so defensive over personal attacks which are objectively meaningless that they look over the cutting logic. Objectivist should probably take note of that, what's the point of your point if you dismantle it with tangent garbage information?

But it's true, survival of the fittest does not argue against 'survival of the kindest', or any other variant, it's entirely a relative matter to the context of the group/environment you're acting in.

Darwins wisdom defeats noob scientists. Anyone can get the degree, but few can do the job even just well.

Dec 09, 2009
Are you as narcissistic and arrogant as Rand?

I am, but so are you. You see, in this context our biggest difference is that I obviously know what I'm talking about, while you quote one small segment of the many worlds theory without having any clue of what it actually means. So what is your point? To flash your ability to provide hyperlinks on internet forums or to find out the deeper meaning of this? If the latter, then I suggest you do yourself a favor and look it up, it's not that difficult to grasp. If not then you've proven yourself to be as arrogant and narcissistic as anybody.

I "blabbered" because this is actually posted as science. This is complete and utter nonsense and the reason why I get mad at these constant misinterpretations of Darwin is because people like marjon and mabarker actually DO think this is science! They lack the ability differ between them two so I'm willing to shed some light on this for them, yet their egos perceive it as offensive

Dec 10, 2009
""This is not open for discussion, because if you do happen to "disagree" with Darwin you automatically say that no physical law exists and that the odds of every scenario for anything down to the elementary particles of this world are equally likely to happen."

Real science is always open for discussion.

"Testing the Invariance of Fundamental Constants"

Why bother testing?

You're NOT allowed to misinterpret a scientific result and then claim that it is false! How the hell can you not get that? If your study is based on testing the consistency of "survival of the fittest" then fine, but this wasn't the case -- now was it? Your inability to comprehend such basic logic leaves me with two choices. Either I continue this endless and pointless battle of your ego, or I just leave you with your confusion.

Dec 10, 2009
We now know where you stand on the process of science.

Yes and that is to first understand the results before questioning them. You see if you don't do that the argument becomes invalid, and that means you've contributed nothing to the process of finding out. You really don't understand this, do you? Your pride prevents you from learning further than your shallow understanding of the universe. I have no time for you anymore, go on, keep on believing that Darwin claimed evolution was about anything else than survival of the organism which is best adapted to its environment throughout its entire fourth dimension -- I don't have the patience for your ignorance -- nor would I want to.

We now know you have no interest in science what-so-ever, go watch Fox news or something.

Dec 10, 2009
I am still waiting for someone to create life from inorganic materials.
I also wonder how species change. Dogs breeds proliferate yet all are the same species. Will some dog breed eventually become a new species?

First of all if you want to question Darwin, at least pay him the respect of quoting him and not someone interpreting him, no matter if the interpreting source is correct or not (you obviously can't differ between the two). Even though the quote contained an initial line of text from Darwin it can very easily be something taken out of context, thus proving nothing.

So you're waiting for a human to replicate the creation of life? Do you realize how complicated this procedure is? What about replicating parts of this procedure? Such as gene therapy? Is that not enough to at least lean towards this theory? What about the bacterial evolution which has been observed (http://www.newsci...b.html)?

Dec 10, 2009
You know nothing of science marjon because you scream for immediate results of ridiculous proportions. Darwin, like Einstein, like Bohr, like any person who ever provide a likely theory was never able to completely prove it. This is because of physics, you see anything new that is discovered brings new questions along with it -- which in turn is completely relevant to its origin. This is because of evolution, and not in your shallow view of evolution, such as the creation of life, but physical evolution such as e.g. fusion or decay.

If you don't believe me, tell me one thing that think is proven by 100% certainty and I'll easily provide you with an alternative theory. Perhaps completely insane and completely unlikely, but still possible -- and THAT is the 5th dimension. But in order to get anywhere you need to set some foundation for your research or you end up questioning everything leading you nowhere, and evolution is the best theory we have. That's how science works.

Dec 11, 2009
So no effort should be wasted to try and disprove the theory?

I'm sorry marjon but you're acting like an idiot. I have no time for you anymore, really. This was never about disproving the theory, this was about disproving ANOTHER theory which the original researcher cannot be held responsible for. Nobody has disproven evolution, there are highly unlikely alternatives to it, but nobody has ever disproven it. And by your logic, "unless it is 100% proven it isn't worth considering as truth", makes you a hypocrite. Nothing in your world is considered 100% proven, and the fact that you selectively accept them as truth yet evolution is a "theory" makes you completely uninteresting to science. It is true that we have to consider evolution a theory, but you don't understand that very word. You assume "theory" means that we should never base anything on top of that theory unless it is fully proven -- which is impossible and which in return is why I'm done with you, as you're only ranting

Dec 13, 2009
This article supports my own beliefs that natural selection favors selfishness within selfless populations, but then favors selfless groups over groups made up of selfish individuals. I think there is a dynamic relationship between the two contradictory forces of evolution at work all the time.

Dec 14, 2009
I see it as the righteousness of indoctrinated liars fail in the notion that they can effect others. This report justifies that we may survive in opposition to self-deceit due to nerve adaptation. We have science today because our brains are hard wired to avoid distrust. For instance, we cannot get away with telling ourselves there is a hell because it makes us untrustworthy and manipulative. Does not take rocket science to clarify that.

Fear sucks and imagined fear is worse.

Dec 14, 2009
Instead of selfish, 'self interest' may be a better term. I think most people find out very quickly that selfish (at the expense of others) is not fruitful, but self interest (win-win) behavior is successful.
I once applied to the Peace Corps and stated I was doing so for selfish reasons. Self-interest would have been a better term as I would benefit from the experience while helping others, win-win.

Selfish or self-interest, I think groups who help each other become strong and eventually dominate over other groups lacking this trait. But within such groups, natural selection often rewards the selfish and greedy individuals within it, eventually deteriorating the group as a whole, clearing the way for another more selfless group to dominate the habitat. I think this is a natural oscillation within all social animals.

Dec 14, 2009
Here is where patients come in. To represent a group’s desire, one must first understand the group’s goals. What you end up with is groupthink and the motivation becomes fear.

True motivation comes from within and is built on integrity and self-sufficients. These are the traits that are represented in this article.

This reduces groupthink and fear to an after thought with very little substance.

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