The Pursuit of Kindness…

Éamonn Toland read Modern History and Economics at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, where he received a Lawlor Foundation Scholarship. He worked as a management consultant with Accenture and McKinsey & Co., and as an entrepreneur and an executive with Paddy Power. As well as being a media spokesman for Accenture, he has written articles for the London Times and Telegraph, appeared in television shows and documentaries, and been a key speaker at numerous conferences. Together with his wife and son, he divides his time between Dublin, London and New York. THE PURSUIT OF KINDNESS is his first book.

Richard Dawkins once wrote: “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish.” Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project, believed that our selfless moral feelings conflict with the evolutionary urge to preserve our DNA, and could only have come to pass as a result of divine intervention. They were both wrong.

We all want to be kind. We all like to think that we are the good guys. It is fundamental to our wellbeing. We now have evidence that we are naturally predisposed to be kind and collaborative. Our genes aren’t selfish. Evolution doesn’t care if we are naughty or nice. If kindness helps our genes to reproduce then kindness and collaboration can flourish

Dawkins was influenced by a definition of altruism that required kindness to come at a personal cost. Applying the concept to evolution, biologists discounted kindness that carried mutual, win-win benefits, leading them to the not-very-surprising conclusion that reducing biological fitness through selflessness could only lead to extinction. Dawkins later acknowledged that genes are “blind replicators”, stumbling onto ways to make copies of themselves through natural selection, but a literary conceit about “selfish” genes soon became a term of art.

For most of the 300,000 years that Homo sapiens have walked the earth, population levels were low. There may have been less than half a million of us as recently as 20,000 years ago. In an environment where food and land are abundant, the fittest have a huge incentive to collaborate in hunting and gathering, warding off predators, sharing tools and match-making across bands, rather than competing over resources. For 95% of the time that people have been on the planet, survival of the fittest for our species has meant survival of the kindest.

There is evidence that a rudimentary moral sense is innate, including research on how three-month-olds track the movements of “good” puppets, “bad” puppets and “neutral” puppets. By the time they can reach for a toy after the show, 6-month-olds “overwhelmingly” reach for the good guys. One 12-month-old used the good puppet to hit the bad puppet over the head.

There’s also evidence that an inner moral voice, a conscience, that applies the emotional brakes on bad behaviour by making you feel good when you do good things and feel bad when you do bad things, is nearly universal – shared by 99% of women and 97% of men.

Nurture helps to shape the parameters of what we feel good or bad about, what is taboo, who should be seen as an enemy and who is an innocent stranger. We are deeply social creatures, and we are adept at copying the behaviour of prestigious adults in our group. We are instinctively kind to our friends, and we expect kindness in return.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a dark side. As populations soared over the last 20,000 years we were forced into conflict, as hungry hunter-gatherer bands started raiding and pillaging for resources. The earliest known war graves, in Jebel Sahaba near the Egyptian-Sudanese border, are around 14,000 years old.

Our inner moral voice was still a hindrance to cruelty until we persuaded ourselves that ruthlessness was a necessary evil to right wrongs. We discounted evidence that conflicted with our beliefs and values using “confirmation” or “myside” bias: Christians loved their enemies by killing them; Enlightenment revolutionaries who declared that all men are created equal enslaved them; nice people voted Nazi. We need to justify our actions to avoid stress and cognitive dissonance. We are not sociopaths, but we are natural-born narrators. Convincing ourselves that we were good made it so much easier to be bad.

With social media curating news feeds to pander to our prejudices, more and more people are living in an echo-chamber, partly of their own making, where dissenting voices are not heard. We all suffer from biases we are only dimly aware of. That is one reason why sites like Slugger O’Toole are so important. As a safe space for civilized discussion, where posters have to “play the ball, not the man”, it allows people to learn about each other without demonizing or stereotyping.

I have been lurking on Slugger O’Toole for years under the pseudonym Hovetwo. It has been a fascinating and humbling experience. There are not many forums on the internet where you can get smarter by remembering that you have two ears and one mouth, but Slugger is definitely one of them. To all the posters who have made me think so hard, I say thank you, and I hope you enjoy my new book if you get a chance to read it.

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THE PURSUIT OF KINDNESS is an evolutionary history of human nature that draws on the latest evidence from psychology, archaeology and biology to explain why we are naturally predisposed to kindness and collaboration, and why the evolution of a conscience increased our chances of survival. It is available in all good bookstores and at Liberties Press.

You are welcome to join them for a Zoom launch and Q&A session next Thursday, May 27th at 1800 BST, 1300 Eastern and 1000 Pacific time. Just follow the link here: or here:

Photo by reneebigelow is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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