I'm reading two books--both advance copies--which are providing some insight into our current situation. The first, The Compassionate Instinct, edited by Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh and Jeremy Adam Smith, is subtitled "The Science of Human Goodness." The collection of essays by various scientists includes not only a great deal of research information but also a good deal of story-telling and personal anecdote challenging the old survivalist assumption that we humans are hard-wired for self-interest. The newest studies of primates are now telling us a different story--that such qualities as empathy, forgiveness, community, cooperation and trust are as much a part of the survival imperative as the ones that have commonly been accepted: competition, aggression, the urge to dominance and so forth.
The book is divided into three parts, the first examining "The Scientific Roots of Human Goodness"; the second, "How to Cultivate Goodness in Relationships with Friends, Family, Coworkers and Neighbors"; and the third, "How to Cultivate Goodness in Society and Politics." Heaven knows, these qualities and practices are needed if our species is to survive the near-disaster it has brought upon itself, and it is encouraging to know that the scientific community is beginning to promulgate a rational undergirding for them.
Perhaps--who knows--we can use some of this research to our mutual benefit. Who knew, for example, as research has revealed, that in combat situations--at least until recently--the majority of soldiers fired their weapons into the air rather than targeting the enemy? The revulsion for killing a follow human being was so powerful, so innate, that many went through the motions without actually following orders to kill. A hopeful discovery. But of course, once discovered, the finding resulted in the development of new training techniques to overcome the "natural" instinct." The kill rate, in our recent wars has significantly increased.
Still, "The Compassionate Instinct" is a worthwhile read, and one that suggests that what we are discovering about ourselves as a species may, just conceivably, help us to redirect our sense of who we are and where we're going with this fragile planet of ours. The question remains as to whether we have yet "hit bottom," to revert to the language of addiction--and addicts we all seem to be, don't we? We're addicted to our fossil fuels, to our comforts and conveniences, to the kinds of food we eat, to our "rights"... To paraphrase yet another great writer, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, we must change our lives. ("Du musst dein Leben aendern.")
I'm having a lot of trouble with the second book, the third in "The Art of Happiness" series by the Dalai Lama and the psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler. I had the same problem with the first in the series, when I reviewed it for the Los Angeles Times a number of years ago. But I need to read a bit further into the book before I talk about it in any further depth.