It has been conventional wisdom among scientists and philosophers that kindness, compassion and empathy are learned behaviors, taught by elders, society and religious leaders. Now more research is coming to light that shows how empathy is actually embedded as a basic instinct -- an instinct we share with other mammals, not a “humane” exclusive. According to Frans de Waal, in his book The Bonobo and the Atheist,
“We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity in primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch through rational reflection, we received a huge push in the rear from our background as social animals.” (p. 17)
We can trace the connection between kinship and kindness linguistically. Follow the etymology of “kind” back to the Old English gecynde meaning “natural” and “genial.” In other words, it is natural to be nice. Gecynde itself is a cognate of cyn, “family.” Our modern word “kin” stems from this, and is related to Old Norse kyn, Latin gens, Greek genos, Sanskrit jánas … you get the idea.
Our innate sense of kindness is not always indiscriminate, however. As de Waal states,
“All of nature is build around the distinction between in-group and out-group, kin and non-kin, friend and foe. Even plants recognize genetic kinship, growing a more competitive root system if potted together with a stranger rather than a sibling. There is absolutely no precedent in nature of individuals that indiscriminatingly strive for overall well-being.” (p. 183)
Just because there is no historic precedent for unbiased altruism, it doesn’t mean it is impossible. Consider Neuro-Linguisting Programming (NLP): “the use of word-meanings, which describes how the language of our mind produces the qualities of our behavior.” Although Wikipedia, having defined the concept, offers lukewarm support at best, I believe it makes sense. As we learn through our five senses and an increasing command of language, we develop identifiable patterns of behavior. We can also use the senses — and language — to modify these patterns of behavior.
We already have a limbic-brain predisposition toward kindness and compassion -- at least toward those we recognize as “kin.” Our challenge, indeed our hope of survival, lies in expanding that recognition to the whole global community.
Again, de Waal’s research with primates shines hope on extending kindness to all our “kin” on the planet:
“But even if there can be little doubt that morality evolved for within-group reasons, without much consideration for humanity at large, this is not necessarily how it needs to be. … The more we expand morality’s reach, the more we need to rely on our intellect, because even though I believe that morality is firmly rooted in the emotions, biology has barely prepared us for rights and obligations on the scale of the modern world. We evolved as group animals, not global citizens. Nevertheless, we are well underway to reflect on these issues, such as universal human rights … [W]e humans have a long history of building new structures on top of old foundations.” (p. 235)
There are examples everywhere you look of improbable acts of kindness between very different species, as between age-old human foes. The opportunities for altruism are as boundless as our imaginations.
What can you do today to contribute to universal kindness through global kinship? I welcome your comments.
Christin Whittington is a practitioner of energy medicine – helping people restore balance in their bodies, their health and their lives using a combination of Reiki, Reflexology, Jin Shin Jyutsu, Qi Gong and herbal medicine.