Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Evolving to be More Compassionate and Collaborative?

Here's an intriguing post from over at the blog Integral Options Cafe.
Research being down at UC-Berkeley is attempting to provide evidence counter to some long held assumptions about human nature. Obviously, as a Buddhist, I'm interested in these kinds of studies, precisely because they could help poke holes in narratives we think are fixed about ourselves. Yet, it's also possible that this kind of research will just replace one fixed narrative with another, which isn't really of great benefit to anyone.

The article opens with the following:

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are challenging long-held beliefs that human beings are wired to be selfish. In a wide range of studies, social scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence to show we are evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive.

I'm always wary of arguments suggesting that people are evolving into something better. And there doesn't appear to be any discussion in this particular article about longitudinal studies that would give data over decades and decades of time to help back up such claims in this case. However, even though there's a lot of conflict in the world, somehow a majority of the world's 6 billion people are at least getting along enough to not kill each other. Some hate each other. Some are on opposing sides in conflicts. And some are simply lucky enough to be out of harms reach right now. But even though far too many people feel constantly threatened, or are so poor they're starving, or are simply scrapping by despite the others around them, it stands to reason that the close proximity, combined with the lack of basic resources in many places would lead to a lot of murder and attempted murder. But somehow, most of us make it through the day, even in the most war-torn of places.

Beyond this basic issue, though, the article points out the social context for our behaviors:

"The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated," Willer said. "But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status."

"Given how much is to be gained through generosity, social scientists increasingly wonder less why people are ever generous and more why they are ever selfish," he added.

Hmm, what about venture capitalists? Power CEO's? Even rank level employees trying to "get ahead"? Our economic system doesn't really support generosity that isn't linked to some personal gain. I suppose you could argue that wealthy folks giving away millions to charity are doing so to help out and also to gain status through generosity. But isn't this just faux generosity? And if so, is it really worth aspiring to?

Now, there are plenty of social counterweights that help allow true generosity to emerge on a daily basis. Even those at the top economically, who benefit greatly from doing things to appear generous, are also overriding the greed habit to do some truly wonderful things. In other words, we all pull off being generous, which maybe supports the research being done.

What do you all think?


ZenDotStudio said...

I heard Dacher Keltner (sp?) from The Greater Good Institute speak at a course called "Awakening Joy" on this issue, that humans are by nature compassionate and generous.

Call me Pollyanna but the research sounded logical and made sense. As with all Dharma when I check it out on a personal level, it seems to make sense and work. When I feel and act in a more generous way, I am happier and feel more expanded. When I act selfishly I feel contracted and mean.

I don't know about those CEO's you mention. It's an interesting point. Do they operate in a different world? What's their inner life like?

PS your link (which is worth checking out) has an extra http:// which makes it not work

Nathan said...

Hi Carole,

I seem to have a lot of extra https in my posts - doh! Just fixed the last week's worth. At least now, those resource links I posted Sunday work. Thanks for letting me know.

As for those CEO's - I think it's more the social/economic environment pressing in, and suggesting that generosity and compassion don't fit in with ballooning the bottom line.


Adam said...

It seems like personal finances (gain or loss of $$ primarily) is where this theory seems to break down the most. So what does that say about our monetary system? Does it imply that our competition based system is no longer alinged with human nature? I'll have to think about this for a bit. You bring up some good points here.

And I agree with Carole in her personal assesment. Selfishness leads to suffering, Altruism leads to less suffering.

spldbch said...

I think there are a lot of examples of genuine genorosity and compassion out there. There are also a lot of examples of greed and selfishness. I think most of us probably fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.