Kindness May Be Our Best Survival Mechanism

Have we got the idea of natural selection all wrong?

Photo by Fezbot2000 on Unsplash

It is in the nature of humans to be social. This is an important point to take in before we go any further.

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. ” — Aristotle

Being part of a group is a prerequisite to being human — rather than the consequence of it. Similarly, a bird doesn’t grow wings because it is a bird; it is a bird because it has wings.

The order in which facts stem from one another is crucial.

When we start seeing our humanity as resulting from living in a group, then we can also ask more adequate questions about our nature and culture. We may be able to notice that what serves us best on both individual and global level is in our nature already — and therefore doesn’t need to be forcefully imposed, buy merely discovered.

What if we wouldn’t have to reinforce rules by executing the law in courts to maintain social order? What if it was enough to examine our evolution and identify what made the human race succeed so spectacularly? Maybe once we see what it is, we could be in charge of our future evolution by simply cultivating those natural qualities of ours.

This article is an investigation of whether kindness can be seen as such an evolution-induced, rather than merely cultural, quality. In the post-Darwinian society, we are used to thinking that it is the fittest, and not the kindest, who survives. But is this really the case for humans?

Would we be able to cooperate on a global level and organize events such as UN summits or the Olympics, and run cross-national charities if what ultimately drove us was the survival of the fittest? Would we have Internet and stock markets if collaboration wasn’t built into our genes? Maybe kindness and altruism are not culture-imposed concepts but have to do with our very nature as a species?

Let’s try to find out.

But what do you mean by “kindness”?

In modern culture, the word “kindness” connotes more of a moral virtue than biological adaption. So let’s try to define it from this point of view first.

I thought that the authors of a project called Kindness Is Everything surely must know what it means. The definition I found on their website seems, indeed, surprisingly complete:

“Kindness is the sincere and voluntary use of one’s time, talent, and resources to better the lives of others, one’s own life, and the world through genuine acts of love, compassion, generosity, and service.”

I think this reflects pretty accurately what most of us have in mind when we talk about kindness. But, for the sake of not making it too easy, I also turned to the good old Aristotle for his definition. Here’s what he had to say:

“Kindness (…) may be defined as helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped.”

There is a curious dissonance arising from comparing these two definitions. Their authors don’t seem to agree on one fundamental thing. Is kindness advantageous only for its “recipient”, or does it also benefit the “provider”?

This is where we touch upon something really interesting — because deciding on how far the benefits of kindness extend may be crucial in deciding on its evolutionary usefulness.

Agreeing with Aristotle implies accepting the concept of idealistic altruism, i.e. performing acts of kindness solely for the benefit of another. However, this also separates the giver from the receiver and pictures them as two completely independent entities. This definition of kindness seems to be lacking the concept of what we may call “common good.”

To me, that sounds contradictory to the first quote of this article about humans being, by nature, socially mired creatures.

The authors of the “Kindness Is Everything” definition appear to be more in line with what psychologists and neuroscientists are showing us today. The notion that performing acts of kindness for another makes us feel better is a part of the scientific consensus today. Our own well-being and the well-being of others are seen as strongly interdependent.

But this is still a long way from saying that kindness is a tool of evolution which allowed us to advance to the top of the ladder of species. Maybe it was, after all, redundant in competing with other mammals and appeared only as a side effect? In this case, it might not even benefit us as much as we like to think.

But before we start pondering whether or not kindness supports the survival of the human species, let’s look at it on a more basic level.

How can acts of kindness and care influence the development of an individual?

How is individual survival dependent on kindness?

When Harry Harlow was born in 1905, people commonly believed that showing too much affection to young children may spoil them. A behaviourist from the époque, John Watson, was warning parents: “When you are tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument.”

It was common for experts at the time to believe that the bond between parents and their children served purely behavioural purposes — in essence, allowed the child to stay fed, warm and physically safe. The link between early childhood emotional bonds and further development was seen as non-existent.

Maybe it was precisely thanks to his rough upbringing that Harlow felt so inclined to research the phenomena of love and affection. His findings profoundly challenged the consensus on the role of kindness in human life.

Harlow’s most famous experiment was a study on a group of young monkeys that were separated from their biological mothers and raised in the presence of two artificial ones. One of them was made of wire and provided food from a baby bottle. The other was made of soft terrycloth and offered no food.

It became clear very soon that little monkeys preferred to spend time with the more comforting cloth “mother”, and turned to the wire one only when they were hungry. Later on, Harlow also put them to a test of exploring the room with and without the presence of the “mother”. The dramatic emotional responses from the monkeys when the mother was removed made it clear how much they relied on “her” for their basic sense of security.

Later experiments done by Harlow and other love-and-affection researchers (look up John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth) confirmed what is not even subject to discussion today: the emotional bond between a child and their caretaker is necessary for the child’s healthy development.

In other words, love and kindness that parents direct toward their young ones are an essential element of prolonging the species.

But that’s not the only purpose of kindness. According to what C. Gamble, J. Gowlett and R. Dunbar concluded in their collective work Thinking Big, cultivating strong kinship bonds was important in a much bigger picture. There are many reasons to believe that family relationships of early humans, structured and organised as they were, became the necessary prerequisite for the geographical expansion of our species 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.

And if that was the case, then kindness seems to be the quality that was indispensable for homo sapiens to conquer the world.

So what about the survival of the fittest?

“We so often assume both in the scientific community, and in our culture at large, that Darwin thought humans were violent and competitive and self-interested in their natural state. That is a misrepresentation of what Darwin actually believed, and where the evolutionary study of human goodness is going.” — Dacher Keltner

Sir Charles Darwin spent a significant part of his life trying to figure out how we got where we got as a species. His conclusions were often ambiguous and changing throughout his life. And, as it often happens with complex studies like his, they got simplified as the years went by.

The mainstream knowledge is selective and absorbs certain ideas more easily than others. But is it possible that we trivialised Darwin’s theory to the point where it lost its merit?

The “survival of the fittest” is what the majority of people associate with Darwin’s theory of evolution. But not many question the mechanics of natural selection understood as genetically passing down those characteristics that were most valuable for individual survival.

Kindness doesn’t seem to be one of such characteristics. What survival advantage can an individual get from caring for others, if those others are savages?

The answer is probably “none” — but only as long as we look at the individual without regarding her as part of a group. Because as soon as we start seeing individual survival as interdependent with the well-being of the group (i.e. tribe) — what can be classified as a “survival advantage” changes dramatically.

What is overlooked in the popular understanding of Darwin’s theories is that they went beyond the question of individual survival. In the context of homo sapiens, Darwin talked about the emergence of social virtues as the means to strengthen tribes. And as he realised, there might be something more complex at work here than just the “survival of the fittest.”

“A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” — Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

From this point of view, the emergence of social virtues is a natural evolutionary process, when a species (in this case: homo sapiens) begins to live in groups and depend on those groups for survival. Then, the competition for “the fittest” happens on the tribal level.

In other words, the goal of the evolution now becomes to select the strongest tribe — rather than the individual.

At this point, it becomes in the best interest of the individual to play her role so as to contribute to building a better tribe. This often means that the individual is required to perform acts of kindness, cooperation and fidelity.

Interestingly, this line of thinking perfectly matches what Dave Logan et al. presented in their bestselling book Tribal Leadership. In the context of organisational success, the values behind tribal culture determine both the efficiency of collective actions and individual well-being. From this perspective, kindness, collaboration and selfless service are the most beneficial values for any “corporate tribe” — and definitely outweigh rivalry and other purely egoistic pursuits.

A kind individual in the dire world

Even assuming that kindness helped us get to where we are as a species, we may still doubt whether it is a fully beneficial evolutionary adaptation. After all, being kind to those who are not kind to you doesn’t seem like a great strategy in the world where others are mostly trying to take advantage of you.

“Do unto others as ye would they should do unto you” — said Jesus and many people try to follow this advice even today. It is a great approach, but here’s the tricky part: it only works when all members of the tribe decide to practice it.

Otherwise, you may end up turning the other cheek until you get beaten to death.

Being kind only makes sense to an individual when it allows her to participate in the benefits offered by the group. These benefits must also be significant enough for kindness to pay off.

The authors of Thinking Big argue that the two most important advantages that social life provides are safety and support. These were worth the evolutionary effort to make human brain bigger in order to adapt to functioning within tribes. So, from the point of natural selection, safety and support seem to be primary.

Today, here lies the paradox.

An individual needs to feel safe and supported, as conditioned over the course of evolution. Theoretically, what she has to do in order to meet those needs is being kind and committed to her tribal fellows. But if she was to show kindness in the face of hostility — which often is the case — that obviously wouldn’t do her any good. Consequently, she may never develop the attitude of kindness and her environment remains hostile.

Is there any way we can untangle ourselves from this paradox and move forward, leaving tribal conflicts aside — and embracing kindness instead?

Does our survival today depend on kindness?

Natural selection was, until very recently, a process that unfolded on its own. No species on this planet was able to direct it intentionally. But as homo sapiens arrived at some groundbreaking insights regarding its own biological and mental development, maybe the rules of the game are bound to change.

“The ancient approaches to ethics and virtue — for example, found in Aristotle or Confucius — privileged things such as compassion, gratitude and reverence. A new science of virtue and morality is suggesting that our capacities for virtue and cooperation and our moral sense are old in evolutionary terms (…). And a new science of happiness is finding that these emotions can be readily cultivated in familiar ways, bringing out the good in others and in oneself.” — Dacher Keltner

Maybe the process of our evolution is no longer something that we merely observe and describe. Maybe we are becoming capable of consciously steering it in the desired direction.

And if the desired direction is survival — or even thriving — as a species, I think we need to redefine what our tribe is. We already know how important tribal bonds are for us to survive.

The problem begins when there are too many tribes that differ and compete according to the principle of “survival of the fittest”. This implies that some tribes need to be eliminated, while others win. And while that worked 40,000 years ago, it cannot work any longer today.

The reason why it can’t work is that our biggest problems right now are global. We still don’t see it that way in the course of our everyday lives. Common sense tells us that our most important community is the local one. Our family, friends, co-workers. But actually, that’s not the case.

For our clothing and food, we rely on providers based thousands of miles away. We consume and produce online content in the global English language — and that content often shapes the backbone of our worldview. We are all bound to experience the consequences of climate change sooner or later, no matter whether we believe it is a real problem and no matter our geographical location.

We already are a global tribe — what’s missing is our full recognition of it. And, according to how natural selection primed us, we should be kind to the members of our own tribe. The only way it can work is if the kindness is unanimous and widespread.

It is the time for humanity to take charge of its own evolution and reinforce kindness above all else. With the findings in neuroplasticity and positive psychology, we have all the knowledge and tools to do this. So, we better use them.

Because it may be that kindness is our best survival mechanism.

Self-awareness precedes self-improvement. Join me on

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