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Lions Roar : March 2010
SHAMBHALA SUN MArcH 2010 83 In the modern world, it may be science that determines our views on kindness. few institutions in contemporary society carry the cultural authority of empirical science. As in many present-day court cases, we grant science the power to adju- dicate, to tell us which stories are really true. After all, it’s one thing to believe or feel that we human beings are basically this or that, but—we sometimes wonder—what’s the evidence? What happens when scientific findings weigh in on these old debates about our basic humanity? born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful life cheerfully engages this old question: What are the origins of our capacity for kindness? This work grew out of Berkeley professor Dacher keltner’s postgraduate training with pioneering psychologist of the emotions Paul Ekman (co-author, with the Dalai lama, of Emotional awareness). As keltner writes, recent “advances in DNA measurement, in archaeology, and in the study of our pri- mate relatives are yielding striking new insights into the history of humanity... Embedded in these discoveries is an answer to the question of where our capacity for goodness comes from. born to be Good reveals how survival of the kindest may be just as fitting a description of our origins as survival of the fittest... Evolutionary science provides a context for understanding the origins of the positive emotions, where the smile comes from, why we are wired to trust and to care.” (Phillips and Taylor would encourage us to wonder: why is it that so many of us will be sur- prised at the emergence of scientific findings that suggest we are hard-wired for compassion and kindness?) key to keltner’s thesis is what he calls “jen science,” a term in- spired by Confucius. Jen is the central idea in Confucius’ teach- ings, says keltner, “and refers to a complex mixture of kindness, humanity, and respect that transpires between people... Jen is felt in that deeply satisfying moment when you bring out the good- ness in others.” keltner connects jen (which seems to be similar to the awakened heart of basic goodness in Buddhism) with Darwin’s careful analyses of the positive emotions of love, joy, and sympathy. “Contrary to what many may assume,” continues keltner, “Darwin believed that these emotions were the basis of our moral instinct and capacity to be good.” Because of Darwin’s views of the origins of human goodness, keltner confidently concludes: “Darwin and Confucius would have been very content collaborators.” Another important collaborator in this cultural conversation is William James, whose late nineteenth-century thesis about the primary role of the body in our emotional life echoes the ex- periences of many practitioners of yoga through the centuries. “for James,” says keltner, “the topography of emotion maps onto our viscera. Every subjective state, from political rage to spiritual rapture to contentment one feels at the sounds of children play- ing, is registered in its own distinct ‘bodily reverberation.’” Ekman and his colleagues tested and confirmed James’ hypoth- esis in radically different cultures. Among diverse branches of the human family, the most relevant aspect of our human physiology is the autonomic nervous system, or ANS. According to keltner, about whether or not human beings are kind or egotistical. But what seemed striking to us was that in modern times, there’s a sense that one side of that argument has swept the board... We’re not saying that people have stopped being kind, but that kindness has been under a great deal of pressure. What is striking is that people have stopped thinking of human beings as kind. There’s a real suspi- cion about the human character, which has never been, in Western society, as widespread as it is now.” Here is the story of how doubt about human goodness came to be so pervasive. The influential writings of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes played a key role in this decisive cultural shift. Phillips and Tay- lor say that Hobbes, in his most famous work, leviathan (1651), dismissed “Christian kindness as a psychological absurdity. Men, Hobbes insisted, were selfish beasts who cared for nothing but their own well-being, human existence was a ‘warre of alle against alle’... With Hobbes, selfishness and aggression were transformed from moral vices into psychological facts.” To this day, we sometimes say of acts of uncaring greed: What can you expect? it’s just human nature to take as much as you can, isn’t it? Phillips and Taylor en- courage suspicion of this pessimistic view of humanity. They ask: What if, to the contrary, “the kind life—the life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others—is the life we are more inclined to live, and indeed is the one we are often living without letting ourselves know that this is what we are doing?” Our attitudes toward children and childhood are connected to our attitudes toward kindness. Are human beings born as essen- tially small versions of the warring adults and aggressive societies around them, bent from birth on one-upping everyone in sight? Or, is there an inborn empathy, a fundamental warm-heartedness only later covered over by fearful and defensive cultural condi- tioning? Phillips and Taylor are unequivocal: It is one of the contentions of this book that children begin their lives “naturally” kind, and that something happens to this kindness as they grow up in contemporary society. This is not a new idea: over 250 years ago Jean-Jacques rousseau made a passionate plea for the rescue of children’s natural kindness from the corrupting effects of a divided society. This is a key point in the history of kindness, which is also the his- tory of childhood. What is new perhaps is how easily people today are persuaded not to take kindness too seriously. How has something so integral and essential to ourselves become so incidental, so implausible to us?