Empathy, compassion and gratitude — these traits don’t usually spring to mind when you think about Darwinism and natural selection. No, your mind more immediately drifts toward anti-social characteristics like competition, survival of the fittest, and selfishness (as in the “selfish gene”). But above, on the first day of 2015, UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner reminds us that evolution can bring out the best in us, and Darwin recognized that. As Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, the strengthening of our capacity for “sympathy” played a central role in human evolution:
With mankind, selfishness, experience, and imitation, probably add …. to the power of sympathy; for we are led by the hope of receiving good in return to perform acts of sympathetic kindness to others; and sympathy is much strengthened by habit. In however complex a manner this feeling may have originated, as it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one another, it will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.
That’s not to say that we don’t have a dual nature — a capacity for being unsympathetic, selfish, power hungry. That’s something Keltner studies too, and, indeed a while back, we told you about his studies showing that the wealthy tend to be less sympathetic and giving than the poor. You can find courses taught by Keltner on Human Emotion and Human Happiness in our collection of Free Online Psychology Courses, part of our larger collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.