To describe humans as innately selfish creatures, (a) misunderstands some of our most important scientific and evolutionary theories, and (b) is empirically false.
A person’s first impulse is generally toward generosity, not meanness.
In this video, Emma Seppälä points out that the “survival of the fittest” is an idea mistakenly attributed to Darwin, who never used the phrase. But it’s also worth noting that the very definition of that phrase has been grossly distorted since it was originally coined (by Herbert Spencer). The word “fittest” isn’t about physical fitness. The species that does the best job fitting to the environment are the species that survive.
Check out Emma Seppälä’s book, The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success.
When we think of compassion we often think that I’m either a compassionate person or I’m not. So and so is compassionate or not. The truth is that research shows that we all have compassion and that being kind is actually our first response. It’s our first automatic tendency. So when you give people on a few seconds to make a decision about whether they’ll be fair or not, whether they’ll share or not, whether they’ll be kind or not, they’re very first impulse is to do it. If you give them a little bit more time to think about it maybe they’ll choose a more selfish option, but there are a number of reasons for that as well. In many ways we live in a society where there is the norm of self-interest. We believe that we’re all self-interested. So sometimes people holding themselves back from doing an act of kindness because they’re worried that people will think they’re self-interested; that they’re doing it because they want to get something.
So what I’m trying to get at is that we all built to be kind to be compassionate. There’s this idea out there of survival of the fittest and we attribute that to Darwin. That was false. It’s attributed to Herbert Spencer* he was trying to justify racial hierarchies. Darwin’s message was much more akin to the idea that what he called sympathy or what we can call compassion is the reason that we’re alive today. We’re such a vulnerable species. Look at how we’re built. Our skin is so thin if we didn’t have each other to support each other through the dangers of life and so forth, if our ancestors didn’t stick together and help each other there is no way we would have survived. So he actually pointed more to the fact that compassion was essential to our survival. So, compassion is innate, first of all. But secondly it can be strengthened. So if you feel like you would like to nurture that more in your life you can do so through practices like meditation, but also through actively deciding that you want to every day be as kind as you can to the people around you.
*Dr. Seppälä originally attributed the phrase to Herbert Benson during our interview while meaning to identify Herbert Spencer. The transcript has been modified to reflect her intent.