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Maybe “goodness” is in our genes

It’s a question that has puzzled philosophers through the centuries: Are humans born good, and then caused by outside forces to do evil, or are we born evil, so that we need to be cajoled and threatened into being good?

Dacher Keltner makes an interesting observation in his book Born to Be Good. He points out that when the theory of natural selection began to gain influence in the 19th century, people had to cast this question in a new light: If evolution is predicated on survival of the fittest, why would a species develop altruistic tendencies?

Keltner contrasts the thinking of three 19th century thinkers on the subject: Thomas Huxley, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Charles Darwin.

Wallace was the other guy who discovered natural selection, though Darwin gets the credit. Keltner writes:

Wallace argued that while the body was shaped by natural selection, our mental faculties, and most notably our capacity for good, were created by “an unseen universe of the Spirit.”

Meaning the goodness in humans comes from God. But Huxley thought our nature was shaped by natural selection – and shaped to be selfish. As Keltner explains it:

In Huxley’s view, human nature is aggressive and competitive, forged by evolution in a violent, selfish struggle for existence. Altruistic actions … must be cultivated by education and training.

Only Darwin held that the human faculties for generosity, altruism, and concern about others might actually be adaptive. Yet this is a view now widely shared by evolutionary biologists.

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If you don’t know about Alfred Russell Wallace, he’s a fascinating character in the history of science. Here’s a fun introduction.

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