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Evolution May Favor Survival of the Kindest

Evolution has always favored the toughest among us: after all, there was no dinner for the Neanderthal who lacked the skills to bring home a bison every now and then. We’ve developed brains, brawn, opposable thumbs, and the ability to adapt to all sorts of climates.


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Evolution has always favored the toughest among us: after all, there was no dinner for the Neanderthal who lacked the skills to bring home a bison every now and then. We’ve developed brains, brawn, opposable thumbs, and the ability to adapt to all sorts of climates.

Our social evolution is another thing entirely. Judging from many of our monarchs and political leaders throughout the generations, you might think that humans are evolving to become colder, more ruthless, and just all-around meaner. But in fact, a research project from the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center shows exactly the opposite: Dacher Keitner, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and the author of the book “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” claims that the human race has been around for so long precisely because of our compassionate nature.

“Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate,” Keitner said in a release. “As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct.”

In a study, a group of subjects were given a small sum of money, and were required to use the money in ways to benefit the public good, in hypothetical games. The researchers then paid close attention to how each of the subjects was treated by others, based on what he chose to do with the money. They found that the more generous people were, the more influence they would gain over the others. Kindness seemed to act as a sort of social glue to bond the subjects together.

“The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated,” said Robb Willer, the social psychologist from UC Berkeley who led the study. “But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status.”

Scientists have also noted a genetic predisposition towards kindness in some people: it’s a result of a specific variation of the gene receptor for oxytocin, which is a hormone that promotes loving, nurturing, and social emotions. So, it follows that people who are programmed for compassion and kindness have a distinct social advantage over others—and following Darwin’s model, the kindest and most empathetic people should be spreading their gene throughout humanity.

So could our descendants be evolving a more compassionate core? It’s too early to make a firm judgment, but time will tell—and if nice guys finish last, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

Filed under: General Interest, History, Science,

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