The Biology of Being Good
In a different life, a long time ago, I used to run, early in the morning on a lonely mountain trail. There, at the very top of a hill climb that would take me a few hundred meters above sea level, feeling entirely alone in the whole world, I’d stop and listen to the sounds of the forest around me and wonder how in all that complex ecosystem, where everything made sense for its denizens I, and by extension “we” fitted in.
While we have as little control over whether we are born into this world as the birds and the bees and the trees, unlike them, we are gifted with reason and it haunts us. Lacking instincts that tell us what to do we have to figure it out for ourselves. We crave certainty and guidelines because they make this figuring out easier and when those guidelines are not there, when things go wrong or we find ourselves in situations that are outside the norm, we want to believe that there is an innate goodness in the world, a light of sorts, that acts as our beacon.
Acts of kindness can be experienced in the most unusual circumstances from the most unexpected sources as the case of Jabbar Gibson (http://goo.gl/QOsXNt
) makes abundantly clear. What it shows, perhaps, is the degree to which much of what we are is manufactured by the environment we find ourselves in and the circumstances we cannot change.
While we will get back to the significance of that a little later, it is worth examining the notion of altruism, first coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte who spelt it altruisme in 1851. Two years later the word entered the English language as altruism. Many considered his ethical system - in which the only moral acts were those intended to promote the happiness of others - rather extreme and sought to broaden (and water down) the definition: https://goo.gl/68pn6O
“Evolutionary scientists speculate that altruism has such deep roots in human nature because helping and cooperation promote the survival of our species.” (http://goo.gl/tllV7B
). The question, for me, has always been one of symmetry: https://goo.gl/kqPjtn
and there are studies that suggest that altruistic behavior occurs as a result of looking at the world from a broader perspective: http://goo.gl/5Y4MKG
Studies of other species suggest that altruism may stem from a deeper biological imperative: http://goo.gl/3GtuZi
and “playing nice” may be nothing more than part of a greater calculated strategy for survival: https://goo.gl/6oR9Xx
and even Darwin, it seems, explored this direction in his work: https://goo.gl/s3SuUd
Matthieu Ricard, a happiness researcher who is also a Buddhist Monk, suggests that altruism may be nothing more than a wish for other people to be happy: https://goo.gl/PeyUUt
Philosopher Peter Singer uses a horrifying incident to highlight the fact to examine altruism through a different lens: https://goo.gl/VQkSlX
Where does the environment and circumstances we looked at earlier come into all this? Our personality and much of our philosophy of life is a manufactured process that emerges from what we experience, how we are treated and where we end up in life. While that is not the complete defining package it does work well enough to express part of who we are until the circumstances change, as we saw with Jabbar Gibson.
The world we live in is changing faster than we understand or can see. We sense part of this change in systems that no longer work as they should and social instances where our institutions are failing. We see even more change in the way the planet itself is working against us and dealing with it will require us to work together in ways that we have never quite tried before: http://goo.gl/IDJcAL
Whether we are designed to be good by biology or programmed by evolution or we come across the practice, organically, as a long term survival strategy the fact remains that we are left to make conscious decisions about who we want to be and, by association, what kind of world we want to create.
Small acts, done consistently, succeed in creating a culture that is disrupting the world we live in, challenging it to change just as we, in turn, are challenged to think, evolve and act differently. It is a long journey that may not quite have a destination and it has just began.
I hope you’ve stocked up: coffee aplenty, chocolate ice cream (I know, it is summer), donuts, cookies, croissants and chocolate cake. Have one awesome Sunday, wherever you are.