A social scientist looks at the good and bad sides of human character, arguing that we are evolutionarily inclined “to make a particular kind of society—a good one full of love, friendship, cooperation, and learning.”
How should one behave in the wake of a tragic shipwreck? Writes Christakis (co-author: Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, 2009, etc.), director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, two 1864 incidents in the South Pacific offer “an almost perfect natural experiment.” One crew, led by a captain who “seemed mostly interested in his own survival,” splintered and finally resorted to cannibalism, while on the other ship, “the men stuck together and worked collaboratively from the very beginning,” with no humans eaten. The men on the successful crew even organized an adult education program of sorts, playing chess and teaching each other mathematics, languages, and the like. By the author’s fluent account, the fate of the Grafton speaks to the better angels of our nature, which in turn tends to the good. What he calls a “social suite” of positive features that incline us to love, altruism, selflessness, learning, collaboration, and other such desiderata has an evolutionary nature and may even carry an adaptive advantage, certainly as compared to the dysfunctional characteristics that so often emerge in times of stress. Christakis examines the positive traits of communal societies such as the Shakers (a group that has disappeared, of course, thanks to a curious view of human reproduction), which exhibit altruism, compassion, and, interestingly, “an acceptance of individual differences” that can manifest in many ways. On the nature/nurture front, Christakis notes that kindness and altruism, or alternately nastiness and avarice, “may depend heavily on how our social world is organized.” The shipwreck experiment would seem to speak to that, as does the roiling social division of today. As he explores human nature and its possibilities, the author touches on all sorts of fascinating anthropological matters, such as the evolution of monogamy and the relative friendliness of affluent vs. working-class people.
A refreshingly optimistic view of our kind.