Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life

Dacher Keltner

352 pages, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009

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The conventional view of human nature is that self-interest is our strongest instinct. In this narrative, every action and decision that Homo economicus makes—the choice of a mate, what work to pursue, whom to befriend—is ultimately driven by self-interest. Even child rearing is merely a way to propagate one’s genes.

This view of human nature is not without merit. Most people would agree that self-interest is a powerful driver of human activity. But is this a complete and accurate portrait of human nature? What about people’s proclivity to act cooperatively and altruistically? Is it the case, as Adam Smith and T.H. Huxley believe, that prosocial behavior is solely a cultural construct created to curb our supremely selfish base impulses?

These are the questions that Dacher Keltner tackles in his new book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, strives to unearth clues about the neglected dimension of human nature: “positive emotions that bring the good in others to completion”—emotions that he believes have been serving mankind for millions of years.

As a postgraduate student Keltner worked with Paul Eckman, a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions. Eckman’s research built on the work of Charles Darwin, who in 1872 authored The Expression of the Emotions in Man & Animals, in which he tried to uncover the evolutionary value of facial expressions. Eckman’s research proved the universality of both facial expressions and the physiological changes they create. It established that human emotions are genetically encoded physiological processes that are shaped by our evolutionary past, and that these emotions include not just the basic emotions (like anger and fear), but also what he calls higher order “ethical emotions” such as sympathy and awe.

In Born to Be Good, Keltner takes Eckman’s insights one step further by proposing a new model of human nature that turns the conventional one on its head. Instead of the survival of the fittest, Keltner proposes the survival of the kindest. He demonstrates that in early human society prosocial behavior was the most effective survival strategy. Early humans needed to take care of “vulnerable, big-brained off spring,” a job that required two parents. As a result, males evolved to know their own off - spring and to take care of them, which in turn created a fragile sexual monogamy. The hunting stronger, faster, and ferocious prey required teamwork, which turn facilitated the development of communication. Gossiping amongst the lower ranks of early humans put pressure on high-status members to build consensus rather than rule through force.

Keltner argues that emotions work to promote kindness, humanity, and respect between people, which is of immense evolutionary value. Embarrassment is a way of restoring social order by eliciting reconciliation and forgiveness after a transgression. Touching triggers a cascade of emotions, such as devotion, trust, and even a sense of reward. Compassion holds a special place in the canon of emotions (for Darwin it was the strongest instinct). Its physiological embodiment— via the many touch points of the vagus nerve—encompasses our communicative system, heart rate, and release of oxytocin, which sends feelings of trust, love, and warmth throughout the body.

In Born to Be Good, Keltner shows that people receive significant emotional rewards when acting for the benefit of others, even when it means operating against one’s self-interest. Our ability to work for the greater good comes from fundamental instincts honed over millions of years. If Keltner is right, and I think he is, our most modern problems will be solved by our most ancient responses.

Maria Surricchio is a brand and business strategist who helps triple-bottom-line businesses grow. She was formerly director of innovation at Kraft Foods Inc., where she led the transformation of the company’s coffee sustainability strategy in Europe working in partnership with the Rainforest Alliance.