Why do people do good things? Is kindness hard-wired into the brain, or does this tendency arise via experience? Or is goodness some combination of nature and nurture?
Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, investigates these questions from multiple angles, and often generates results that are both surprising and challenging. In his new book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, Keltner weaves together scientific findings with personal narrative to uncover the innate power of human emotion to connect people with each other, which he argues is the path to living the good life. Keltner was kind enough to take some time out to discuss altruism, Darwinism, neurobiology and practical applications of his findings with David DiSalvo.
DISALVO: You have a book that was just released called Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. What in a nutshell does the term “born to be good” mean to you, and what are you hoping people learn from reading the book?
KELTNER: “Born to be good” for me means that our mammalian and hominid evolution have crafted a species—us—with remarkable tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic tasks of evolution—survival, gene replication and smooth functioning groups. These tendencies are felt in the wonderful realm of emotion—emotions such as compassion, gratitude, awe, embarrassment and mirth. These emotions were of interest to Darwin, and Darwin-inspired studies have revealed that our capacity for caring, for play, for reverence and modesty are built into our brains, bodies, genes and social practices. My hopes for potential readers are numerous. I hope they learn about the remarkable wisdom of Darwin and the wonders of the study of emotion. I hope they come to look at human nature in a new light, one that is more hopeful and sanguine. I hope they may see the profoundly cooperative nature of much of our daily social living.
DISALVO: You’ve said that one of the inspirations for your work was Charles Darwin’s insights into human goodness. Because most people equate his name with “survival of the fittest,” it’ll probably be surprising to many that Darwin focused on goodness at all. What were a few of your take aways from Darwin’s work that really inspired you?
KELTNER: What an important question. We so often assume both in the scientific community, and in our culture at large, that Darwin thought humans were violent and competitive and self-interested in their natural state. That is a misrepresentation of what Darwin actually believed, and where the evolutionary study of human goodness is going.