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So meanies are not the “fittest”? Dacher Keltner says no, they’re not.

Posted on the January 31st, 2009

If you want to excel in the biggest game of all  — life itself — your best chance is to be kind, according to UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner. And he should know, as one of his primary research areas is a focus on the biological and evolutionary origins of human goodness.

In a recent essay “From Darwin and Confucius: More Jen in the New Year” for Powell’s Books, Keltner wrote about his wish for the new year:

Jen is the central idea in the teachings of Confucius. Jen refers to a complex mixture of kindness, humanity, and respect that transpires between people.

In his own research, Keltner says he has discovered that the belief that many have that human beings are inherently greedy, competitive and violent is wrong. He goes on to explain how the ancient writings of Confucius about jen are supported by the research of Charles Darwin:

The deep story to the science of jen traces back to two of Charles Darwin’s less well-known assertions about human nature. The first is that our capacities for sympathy, play, appreciation, and fellow feeling are in fact the strongest of our species — survival of the kindest is a more apt description of our evolution than survival of the fittest. Insights from studies of our close primate relatives, the chimps and the bonobos, from archeological studies of hearths and hunting remains, and from hunter-gatherer cultures are corroborating Darwin’s early intuitions. We are learning that:

* We are a care-taking species. The profound vulnerability of our offspring rearranged our social organization as well as branches of our nervous system.
* We are a face-to-face species. We are remarkable in our capacity to empathize, to mimic, to mirror.
* Our power hierarchies differ from those of other species; power goes to the most emotionally intelligent.
* We reconcile our conflicts rather fleeing or killing; we have evolved powerful capacities to forgive.

The science of jen is founded on a second assertion of Darwin’s, unusual in western thought, that happier individuals and healthier communities — that is, those with high jen ratios — cultivate emotions like compassion, gratitude, awe, love, embarrassment, and mirth.

Keltner has written a newly-published book, “Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” in which he explores his findings on goodness. He talks briefly about the book in the video below:

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