A new book, Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made Us Human and Why it Pays to Get Along, by Stefan Klein, is revisiting the idea of “survival of the fittest,” and just what that might really mean in terms of human social interaction. Reviewed in the wonderful journal, Greater Good: the Science of a Meaningful Life, ( Does Nature Select for Nice? ), reviewer Joseph Ferrell says, “Klein argues that selflessness, not selfishness, creates more genetic success, and that proof for this has been gaining momentum among scientists, gradually challenging the “survival of the fittest” model in evolution.”
“If our ancestors had not learned to follow common goals, they would never have become sedentary, never have crossed the oceans and colonized the entire earth…never have invented music, art, and all the comforts of a modern life,” writes Klein, suggesting that the rise of civilizations are likely the result of a selflessness that is vital to our species’ continued success.
Oftentimes it doesn’t feel that way – that selflessness leads to more success than selfishness. Big business, big government, brute strength, loud propaganda, steamrolling bosses and coworkers, drivers apoplectic with road rage, and pushy people on the street and subway would seem to suggest otherwise, that nice people get kicked to the curb while the self-absorbed rise to the top and reap what often seem to be undeserved rewards.
But if you feel you’re one of the “nice” people – and probably most of the people reading this would feel they fit that category – think about your day, about your circle of friends, about the stranger who smiled at you, or said “excuse me,” or who helped you pick up something you dropped. More likely, those folks outnumber the others, who typically substitute volume for substance.
Our work with FIRST youth robotics teams reveals to us regularly the power and promise of selflessness. In FIRST parlance, it’s known and celebrated as “Gracious Professionalism.” Coined by Dr. Woody Flowers, FIRST advisor and Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gracious Professionalism, or as the kids call it “GP”, is “a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.”
Gracious Professionalism, Dr. Flowers says, is a vital part of pursuing a meaningful life, and he urges FIRST students to “Go be kind and creative.”
Dr. Flowers gets the power of compassion in a competitive world.
And, indeed, a FIRST tournament can be one big noisy nerdy, love fest, a combination of fist pumping, chest thumping, gear grinding competitive robotics mashed up with those same competitive kids line dancing with linked arms happily caterwauling to 80s karaoke. They understand that even in a field of obvious winners and losers, they are still all friends, bound by their unique shared community that endures beyond the field competitions.
They have learned that they can be nice and successful, and the wonderful schmaltzy rewards of their larger community reinforce that understanding.
No less that Charles Darwin himself pondered the question of altruism and its role in natural selection. In “The Descent of Man,” Darwin wrote, “He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.”
The question is not, then, “Why is the world so cruel?” But perhaps more appropriately, “How can there possibly be so much kindness in such a cruel world?” That is the miracle, made abundantly obviously by a nature video gone viral over the last few days, of a hippo gently shoving an injured gnu ashore. In what way would helping the gnu benefit the hippo? And yet, the hippo helps.
Clearly, compassion and kindness persist in the most unusual and trying of circumstances.
Instances of heroic selflessness are legion throughout human history, and everyday acts of random kindness are abundant. Cooperation and collaboration – “Coopertition” FIRST kids know it as – ensures not only individual survival, but the success of a community.
It’s not hard to see what drives some people to ruthlessness. The real wonder is what makes so many, so nice.