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Review - Born to be Good - Dacher Keltner



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There has been a spate of books over recent years on the science of morals, happiness and more. In this book, joining the crowd, Dacher Keltner examines the science of a meaningful life.

He starts off in a way that immediately raises suspicions. I'm sure what he's trying to do is be more approachable - and perhaps that works for some audiences - but for me, the way he brings in Eastern philosophies and is always relating things to the Confucian concept of 'jen' which apparently 'refers to kindness, humanity and reverence' is worrying. In many aspects of science, the tendency to bring in Eastern philosophies is a red flag that this the rest of the contents are pseudo-science, based on vague similarities between, for example, Daoist ideas and quantum theory. So we then get a fusion of misplaced quantum physics terminology and woo. That isn't really what's happening here - Keltner just wants to emphasize the importance of what was represented by jen in real, scientific observations on human nature - but the use, which continues throughout the book with a pseudo-scientific 'jen ratio' inevitably taints the content and makes it difficult to take it entirely seriously.

This worry is reinforced when occasionally the author seems to force the point to match his Eastern philosophy = good stuff mantra. He tells us that using emotion as a guide, as emphasized by Eastern religions, is a good thing - but uses illustrations where the feelings tell us to hate someone, but instilled behaviour says we should tolerate them. Is this really a good thing? He seems to be arguing for the lynch mob over the civilized trial. The reasoning to support his argument seems fatally flawed here. Equally, he shows a ludicrously over-the-top reverence for the Dalai Lama, devoting several pages to being thrilled at being touched by him. He should, perhaps, take the advice of Zaphod Beeblebrox's analyst in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: 'He's just this guy, you know?'

It's not all like that by any means. There is a lot of material in here. Under this 'meaningful life' banner, Keltner covers kindness, embarrassment, smiling, laughter, teasing, touching, love, compassion and awe. The approach is very observational. In a lot of sections he describes how videos of people's reactions are broken down frame by frame to detect facial responses, while there are also reports of brain scans providing a clue to what's going on in a particular activity. There's plenty of content - but it's not always easy to see how a particular conclusion is drawn. It all seems strung together rather haphazardly. I was particularly doubtful about the teasing section, which played down the negative side of teasing - despite what Keltner says, there is a very fine line between teasing and bullying, and much teasing is unpleasant for the victim. On the plus side, apart from the Dalai Lama worship, the touching section was particularly interesting, though the numbers used to analyze people's guess at the intention of touch were hard to interpret. I was also a bit worried that Freud is spoken of in several places in a fairly positive way, as if he hadn't been discredited as being totally unscientific.

The conclusion of the book is 'we are wired for good' - and though elements of this do come through in the results, there is feeling that this is a search for a conclusion that the author had before he began, with selective interpretation of results along the way. Not entirely satisfactory.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007