Scientists are successfully challenging the theory that human beings are naturally selfish. On the contrary: evidence shows we are wired to be naturally collaborative – an essential part of our quest to survive and thrive.
It all starts with caring for babies
Professor Dacher Keltner co-director of the Greater Good Science Centre at the University of California, Berkeley, says:
“The answer lies in the vulnerability of our children. Little baby chimpanzees eat by themselves; human babies can’t. Baby chimpanzees sit up on their own; you sit up a human baby, and they go, ‘Watch out, man, my head’s really big!’
Their heads are so big because their brains are so big. To fit their big heads through the human birth canal—which narrowed as we started to walk upright on the African savannah—our babies were born profoundly premature and dependent upon people to take care of them.
Our babies are the most vulnerable offspring on the face of the earth. That simple fact rearranged our social structures, building cooperative networks of caretaking, and it rearranged our nervous systems. We became the super caregiving species, to the point where acts of care improve our physical health and lengthen our lives.”
Professor Keltner found more proof through a series of experiments showing how our brains react to pain.
“If I pinch or burn your skin, the anterior cingulate region of your brain will light up. If you see somebody else suffering, that very same part of the cortex activates. We have the same pain response to other people’s pain as we do to our own experience of pain.”
We are wired to empathize.
Another example is in a fascinating part of your autonomic nervous system called the vagus nerve, which starts at the top of the spinal cord and wanders through your body, through muscles in your neck that help you nod your head and orient your gaze toward other people.
In our lab, we show participants photos of suffering and distress and find that these images activate the vagus nerve. We’ve also found that if somebody tells you about a sad experience—of, say, their grandparent dying—your vagus nerve fires. If they tell you an inspiring story, their vagus nerve fires. The more you feel compassion, the stronger the vagus nerve response.
“Compassion is essential to our evolutionary history, it defines who we are as a species, and it serves our greatest needs as individuals—to survive, to connect, and to find our mates in life.”
To pass your genes to the next generation, you’ve got to have qualities that make you attractive as a mate.
Researcher David Buss, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, asked 10,000 people from 37 different countries: “What is most important to you in a mate?”
He found that kindness was the most important criterion, and the single universal requirement across these 37 countries. People are looking for kindness as a mating strategy.