An evolutionary history of compassion

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on July 21, 2019 Published on July 21, 2019

Title: Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society Author: Nicholas A Christakis Publisher: Hachette India Price: ₹699

Let all the hatred floating around not fool you; we, humans, are inherently virtuous — our genes would attest to the fact

One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the lives of others, observed French philosopher and activist Simone de Beauvoir. This is done, she elaborated, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion. Evolutionary biology, however, tells us this is easier said than done. Humans are hardwired to try to (only) survive. And in this race to be the fittest, compassion becomes a casualty.

History of humans hence is replete with examples of bad emotions — of individuals and collectives — wreaking havoc often in the pretext of excelling at the art of survival. On that cue, his-story is a case study of bad behaviour, from wars and famines to genocides and cyber lynching.

Altruism is not ‘inherent’ in our genes, as Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene prompted us to think. Each gene acts in a way that would help it replicate itself and move on to the next.

Ties that bind

Does that mean we are bound to fail always to think in terms of the collective and strive for greater common good? Is the idea of a good society a chimera or a unicorn? Not many think so. In Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Nicholas A Christakis, for one, thinks the altruistic society does exist and finds compassion plays a pivotal role there. He believes our common humanity helps us override the tribalism that divides us in many hues.

Christakis, interestingly and ironically, is the best candidate to say this. In 2015, the sociologist and medical doctor who teaches at Yale, was subjected to an ugly, angry confrontation at the university over his comments on Halloween costumes which triggered a national controversy. Angry students bayed for his blood, urging Yale to fire Christakis who in effect said students are free to wear offensive costumes at a Halloween party, hurting sentiments of a minority.

It is hence interesting to see a teacher, who almost lost his job and career thanks to a hate campaign, writing a book on good society and its evolutionary origins. Christakis begins his examination by looking at the wrong things people do as a group, tracing its origins and causes in order to form a cogent thesis to prove what’s wrong with it and how it can be amended.

Christakis cites the 1841 classic work Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Scottish journalist Charles Mackay who argued that people “go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” People in crowds often act in thoughtless ways, he writes, “shouting profanities, destroying property, throwing bricks, threatening others”.

This process is called deindividuation. Which means people here lose their self-awareness and sense of individual agency as they identify more strongly with the group, which often leads to anti-social behaviour they would never consider if they were acting alone.

Sounds familiar? If you’ve been tracking contemporary Indian sociopolitics you’d nod in agreement. The mob, says Christakis, cease to think for themselves, lose their moral compass, and adopt a classic us-versus-them stance that brooks no shared understanding.

“One of the most dispiriting questions I have encountered in my own laboratory research is whether the affinity people have for their own groups... must necessarily be coupled with wariness or rejection of others. Can you love your own group without hating everyone else?,” asks Christakis.

The answer forms the backbone of our understanding of a good society. Christakis here discusses Dawkins’ 1982 book The Extended Phenotype where the evolutionary biologist noted that it should theoretically be possible to free the selfish gene from the “individual organism which has been its conceptual prison”.

The extensions

From this perspective, a beaver may be wired to make a useful dam just as it is wired to have a functional pancreas, notes Christakis. “Dawkins speaks of extended phenotypes, but I prefer to use the term exophenotype,” he says. This refers to “non-incidental, genetically-guided changes that an organism makes to its surroundings to improve its prospects for reproduction and survival.”

Which means the social worlds we make are an exophenotype similar to bowers — the framework that supports climbing plants. Why is this important? Because, according to Christakis, understanding the power of genes to shape not just the body and mind of an organism but also the world around it opens up new ways of seeing human social systems.

In sum we are what/who we are connected to (friends). This means, even though we are hardwired to ‘survive’, our desire for social connection and interpersonal understanding is so deep that it is with each of us until the end.

“My vision of us as human beings holds that people are, and should be, united by our common humanity,” writes Christakis. And he believes this commonality originates in our shared evolution. It is written in our genes, he says.

This understanding makes us feel the oneness in us, cutting across ethnicities, religious divides and other discriminatory factors. Recognising this common humanity makes it possible for all of us to lead grander and more virtuous lives, Christakis writes.

He cites a scene from Band of Brothers, a 2001 war drama to prove this point. In the series, a real-life soldier, Darrell “Shifty” Powers, makes an observation about a German soldier: “We might have had a lot in common. He might’ve liked to fish, you know, he might’ve liked to hunt. Of course, they were doing what they were supposed to do, and I was doing what I was supposed to do. But under different circumstances, we might have been good friends.”

We are one

Where does this cross-cultural similarity come from? asks Christakis. The fundamental reason is, according to him, we each carry within us an evolutionary blueprint for making a good society. Genes do great things inside our bodies, the author agrees, but to him what’s even more amazing is what they do outside of the body. Genes affect not only the structure and function of our bodies, minds and, hence, our behaviours; but also the structure and function of our societies, he postulates. This is the source of our common humanity.

“Natural selection has shaped our lives as social animals, guiding the evolution of what I call a “social suite” of features priming our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, learning, and even our ability to recognise the uniqueness of other individuals.”

Christakis has divided the book into 12 chapters and a lucid, comprehensive introduction. Running into more than 500 pages, the book is indeed a big one. But the prose is soft and considerate even though one would miss the presence of a more meticulous editor here and there.

Considering the wide spectrum of subjects Christakis covers in the 12 chapters and the passion with which he unravels the evolutionary origins of a good society, sifting through hitherto unknown works from biology, social sciences, pop culture, politics, religion and myriad sciences, Blueprint can easily draw comparisons with Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, one of the most seminal works in history which tried to understand the way humans live, work and evolve.

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Published on July 21, 2019
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