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Review - The Compassionate Instinct - Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh, Jeremy Adam Smith (Eds)



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The social sciences have painted human nature as selfish and violent, and society is more unfriendly and atomistic than ever.  But a new kind of social science has arrived, and it will correct this bleak picture of human nature and make society a kinder, more trusting place.  So this anthology claims, and with the help of some big names in psychology, journalism, and world peace, it does a lively job of defending its premises.

On close inspection, those premises are not crack-free.  The book is as much a social manifesto as it is a summary of scientific findings; the evangelical spirit boosts the interest but not the integrity of its conclusions.  The authors do not all share the same background assumptions, even if they all support in a general way the aims of Greater Good, the magazine at UC Berkeley from which the articles in this collection is drawn.  And the book's claims are not as revolutionary as some of the contributors make out.  But for anyone interested in trends in the social sciences this is a good read, and some of the results it reports are genuinely thought-provoking.

The title suggests that this is a work of evolutionary psychology, and indeed the contributors are keen to "uncover the deep roots of human compassion."  It is hard to see why this evolutionary glove fits the aims of the book (aside from increasing its sales).  For one thing, it is a bit awkward to claim on the one hand that compassion is "hard-wired" into humans and on the other hand that we need expert interventions from social scientists to make us more compassionate.  For another thing, evolutionary explanations for altruism have for years been used to undermine human compassion - to explain away our goodness as a selfish consequence of natural selection.  This book does not say why the new findings about compassion - that our nervous system responds positively to good deeds, for example - should have the opposite effect of underlining human goodness.

That said, the book includes articles on some interesting primate studies.  But the most striking of these shows how malleable the compassionate "instinct" is.  In a study reported by the neurologist Robert Sapolsky, the aggressive and patriarchal rhesus monkey species, when mixed with the more passive stump-tailed species, quickly took on the more sociable habits of the latter; this cultural change persisted down the generations.  Primates and humans might be capable of compassion, but calling this an "instinct" is asking for trouble.

The Sapolsky report on primates takes a popular view of human nature - that our evolutionary past makes us "killer apes" - and turns it on its head.  Many of these articles pull the same trick, from Steven Pinker's argument that Homo sapiens is much more peaceable now than ever before, to a series of studies showing that modest, empathetic people are more likely to gain power than ruthless Machiavellis.  Other articles are less combative - some aim simply to cover topics that scientists have so far ignored, like trust, forgiveness and heroism.  Some of the ideas are hardly new: Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, which prefigures a lot of the book's ideas, came out in 1995.  Some may even be outdated: the science of gratitude, a centrepiece of the collection, is not easily distinguishable from the long-established science of positive thinking, which has hit a few snags recently (chief among them Barbara Ehrenreich's Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled American and the World).

The editors promise not to deny the violence and selfishness in the world but to "offer scientific evidence that another world is possible."  On average the book is true to this promise, mixing hard-nosed studies of war and violence with articles that verge on the Polyannaish.  After effulgent reports of the healing power of gratitude and the wonders of forgiveness, it is a relief to find a psychologist admitting that "someone who is unrelentingly cheerful can be a pain in the ass" (this is in a mildly cynical and highly recommended article by the New York Times writer Catherine Price – the book mixes scientist’s reports on their work with journalism with interviews).

The second part of the book is unashamedly a work of self-help.  It is a short course on "How to cultivate goodness in relationships with friends, family, co-workers and neighbours."  The third part also aims high, teaching us "how to cultivate goodness in society and politics."  There is some good stuff here, ranging from climate change to trust in parenting to the division of labour among couples; and Desmond Tutu's piece on reconciliation is moving.  Many of these studies left me with the nagging feeling that the "discoveries" were simply common-sense dressed up.  Do we really need sociologists to tell us that we are less likely to help a person in distress when we are pushed for time, or psychologists to tell us that a good apology should include an admission of guilt?  But this is less a problem with this book than with social science at large -- and perhaps with the piecemeal format of the collection, which cramps the science somewhat.

On the whole this is a thorough, if impressionistic, survey of an interesting line of research that spans many of the social sciences.  The book's evolutionary pretensions are unconvincing, but most of its content does not rely on them; its findings are not dazzlingly novel, but they are food for thought nonetheless. 

Only in paperback

Review by Michael Bycroft

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Last update 05 June 2007