No matter how many times someone claims that humans are naturally selfish and aggressive, they’re wrong.
We’re constructed for compassion.
It’s easy to tell. Our bodies function best when we’re in a state of cooperation and caring. Research shows this in our skin, our brains, nervous systems, our hearts. Research also proves this whether looking for physical, emotional or social benefits.
Kindness, generosity and compassion not only keep us healthy as individuals, they bind us together in networks of family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. These networks spread across the globe for many of us, drawing us in close circles of caring despite distance.
As we grow up we learn to emphasize some behaviors over others, but it appears we speak an innate language of kindness before we speak in words. Hard to believe? Take a look at babies. As reported in, Why We Cooperate (Boston Review Books), studies of babies between one to two years of age show them remarkably eager to help, share and cooperate. Not true of our ape friends. Similar studies of chimpanzees show them to be selfish, particularly when they can get more food for themselves.
James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, authors of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives write that cooperative behavior is not only natural, it’s contagious. When people benefit from the kindness of others they go on to spread the compassion. The tendency to “pay it forward’ influences dozens more in an enlarging network of kindness. And even more heartening, the effect persists. Kindness begats more kindness, blotting out previously selfish behavior.
These findings amplify what anthropologists are now saying (see Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace), that the long progress of humanity has been made possible through generosity and cooperation.
Christakis says, “Our work over the past few years, examining the function of human social networks and their genetic origins, has led us to conclude that there is a deep and fundamental connection between social networks and goodness. The flow of good and desirable properties like ideas, love and kindness is required for human social networks to endure, and, in turn, networks are required for such properties to spread. Humans form social networks because the benefits of a connected life outweigh the costs.”
“If there is anything I have learned about men and women, it is that there is a deeper spirit of altruism than is ever evident.
Just as the rivers we see are minor compared to the underground streams, so, too, the idealism that is visible is minor compared to what people carry in their hearts unreleased or scarcely released.”
Dr. Albert Schweitzer
Butter image Creative Commons. Children holding hands image thanks to Bill Gracey’s Flickr photostream.