Wired for Kindness

hand holding dnaI was having a conversation recently with someone in business who told me he heard that humans are naturally selfish. He asked my opinion on the subject. I disagreed and explained why I believe we are, in fact, genetically wired to be kind.

Genetic wiring (our genome) is shaped over millions of years as humans adapt to the environment. To use a rather black and white (or pink and blue) example, say a tribe of our ancient ancestors a few million years ago had a pink gene and another tribe had a blue gene. Let’s say the pink gene is associated with kindness and say the blue gene is very much a ‘me first’ gene.

The tribe with the pink gene will help each other out in difficult times, allowing strong bonds to form. With less helping and more self-serving, the bonds in the blue tribe are much weaker.

Through millions of years of evolution, tribes with the strongest bonds thrive because when there’s danger, they work together, when there’s hunger, they share. Bonds are forged as we pool together. It’s the same today. Friendships last the test of time when they’re built around kindness, caring, compassion, laughter, and forgiveness.

When bonds are weak, relationships fracture when pressed or stressed. Without the strength of the group, individuals in the blue tribe are less likely to survive difficult times. The tribe, on the whole, is less likely to thrive.

As the blue tribe gradually dies out over time, the blue gene is more or less lost from the gene pool. The pink gene, on the other hand, finds its way into most of the human species because it’s a gene that helps us to thrive.

In this way, nature has ‘selected’ the pink gene as being the gene most suited to the environment. This is ‘Natural Selection’.

So it’s true to say that we are indeed born to be kind. Of course, we have a survival instinct, and we can be selfish when we need to be, but outside of immediate survival needs, our dominant nature is to be kind. It’s in our genes.

There’s strong modern day evidence that we have kindness genes. Scientists studying different variants (shades) of the oxytocin receptor gene (a good candidate for a pink gene) found that our natural tendency to be kind was related to which variant of the gene we have.

The same gene can come in several variants, or shades as I like to think of them. It fits nicely with my use of color to describe genes. You might enjoy my blog ‘Fifty Shades of Pink’, which discusses the subject. If kindness was not in our genes, there would be no connection between a gene variant (a shade of pink) and our tendency for kindness.

Another piece of evidence is that the vagus nerve is strongly correlated with compassion. People with highest vagal tone (a term a bit like muscle tone, used to imply a healthy vagus nerve) tend to be most compassionate, again a demonstration of the links between genetics and kindness.

Of course, as we all know, nothing is all in the genes. There’s always interplay between nature and nurture, that is, genetics and our experiences in life. The natural tendency to be kind can be developed and it can also be suppressed. People can learn to be selfish. Through nature and nurture, we have quite a variety of behaviors in our world, but left alone, we are born to be kind. Our nature is to care.

I’d say that the classical business model got it wrong when they promoted the idea that we’re naturally selfish and it’s all about survival of the fittest. The idea that selfishness is our nature and it’s all about competition paved the way for all sorts of unethical, profit-at-all-costs behaviors.

Evolution was misunderstood. The fittest is not the strongest or the fastest, it’s the kindest – he or she with the greatest capacity to form strong bonds.

Many have said that kindness and compassion are signs of weakness. I’d say they’re signs of strength … and intelligence, especially if we want to thrive in life.

 

RESOURCES

For references to individual pieces of research, see

David R Hamilton PhD, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You

Dacher Keltner, ‘Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life‘.

17 thoughts on “Wired for Kindness

  1. John Lomas-Bullivant

    We are due a kindness revolution. Somehow kindness has become associated with weakness and vulnerability. People feel vulnerable when they perform public acts of kindness, it draws unwanted attention to yourself. It can also remind you of another’s misfortune and how fortunate you are by comparison….however this just makes you feel guilty thus worse, so you avoid the whole emotional issue by walking past the needy and less fortunate. In days gone by humans lived in groups where everyone new each other, and then in villages towns and cities in communities where local bonds were strong, strangers were from out of town so to speak. Being kind to those in your community was second nature. Today we are surrounded by strangers, even are neighbours are often total strangers. We pride ourselves on how technology makes the world a smaller place, at how we can connect with people thousands of miles away, but never fret over the fact that often 95% of the people within a 100 yard radius of where we live are total as strangers who we have no connections with whatsoever. To that extent the kindness gene in urbanised society is very, very slowly, at iceberg speed, being eradicated by our current evolution…..simply because all of the hard core reasons that promoted its evolutionary development are being eroded / negated by modern living.

    Kindness needs to be marketed, branded and relaunched if you like. People need to be given a ‘license to be kind’ We know how to text kindness, how to selfie kindness, walk, run, climb or bake in order for other people to deliver acts of kindness on our behalf….but true kindness, genuine change your life and change their life kindness, well that only comes when you directly engage with other people in acts of kindness….

    Hopefully that ‘license to be kind’ isn’t too far away, and then kindness might just become cool…and how cool would that be!

  2. Carol Sachs

    Been reading Mark Rowland’s … The Philosopher and the Wolf and am disturbed to believe we are all just self serving apes. I prefer your message David. Thank you Carol Sachs

  3. Monika Ashton

    I know that if I felt I could have been kinder, in a situation, I agonize about my behavior. It feels right, and much lighter when I do or say the right thing.
    So yes, kindness is good for you.

  4. Chris

    David

    Fabulous article. i have been in business 40’years and everyone always said i was too soft, too kind, people would cheat me etc! In 40 years not one bad experience or cheat. Maybe I’m really lucky, don’t think so!

    Take care ,

    See you soon

    Warm regards,

    Chris

  5. carol

    Thanks for this David when I was born I was a prem baby I was 2 months early in 1959 I weighed 2lbs
    I like to think that the nurse who,s care I was under was kind to me because my mum. Said my eyes light up when I saw the nurse who was looking after me . Maybe at that tender age I could feel her warmth & compassion and know I always try to. Be kind and help my fellow man as. well. But you could also say the nurse was just doing her Job . It’s interesting cos in my job I work with the public
    & customers are always saying how kind I am I suppose it’s the ripple in water effect Hope I make sense to you light&luv xcx

  6. Ursula

    Your thoughts and wisdom always inspire me to just rest a bit and let, what I have read, have some impact. That’s how it came to me that we need to be kind to ourselves too. Only by receiving our own kindness can we give kindness to others – some may confuse this with being selfish. And as you rightly pointed out, if kindness has the right colour it will nourish and strengthen everybody on the receiving end. Kind regards Ursula

  7. What an uplifiting article to read this morning. Thank you!

  8. Candice

    I love this – I have seen you talk many times at the Isbourne Foundation in Cheltenham but now live in Australia, any thoughts about coming down under to spread such wonderful thoughts?

  9. Karon Clements

    Absolutely love your posts. The only thing that I have strong views about is that so many of my clients have a real fear of appearing selfish and feel it is wrong. They confuse it with looking after themselves. I would say it is ok to be selfish. If you are looking after yourself you have a much greater ability to be kind to some one else. I love your book why kindness is good for you. Since reading it I find so many more opportunities to thank others for their kindness. It really is infectious as well. Thank you for your magical way of passing on your knowledge. Looking forward to Dublin on Saturday

  10. ruth shaw

    thanks David. This reminded me of William Blooms article on ‘Kindfulness’ which was a pivotal moment in my life that, actually, I was doing something right. I ‘could’ and ‘was good at’ doing kindfulness, even if I was/am not so hot on ‘mindfulness’ 🙂
    Thanks for your words.
    ruth

  11. David R. Hamilton PhD

    Hi Ruth, that’s a lovely insight to have. 🙂

  12. David R. Hamilton PhD

    Thanks for your kind words Karon. I’m glad you’ve found my book has helped you notice more opportunities. Yes, that’s quite a common fear that even holds people back from working on their self-esteem. We need to remind ourselves that we deserve love, happiness, and success. It was good to see you at the workshop. 🙂

  13. David R. Hamilton PhD

    Hi Candice, I’ve not yet visited Australia … but it is definitely in my plans. 🙂

  14. David R. Hamilton PhD

    That would be very cool indeed John. I share many of your sentiments. 🙂

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