How Our Evolved Psychology Set the Stage for the Humanitarian Transformation of Our Species

With the COVID pandemic continuing to rage across the world, we are witness to enormous levels of global cooperation and kindness as we all do our best to navigate the “new normal” of mask wearing, awkward social interactions, and constant uncertainty.  But why are we doing any of this? Why are millions of humans donating to relief efforts, helping vulnerable populations, and doing whatever we can to help those (strangers) around us? In his new book, The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code, Michael McCullough explains what makes Homo sapiens so prone to kindness amidst a selfish, selfish evolutionary world.

The Kindness of Strangers is a brilliant book for several reasons. First, McCullough has found a way to write about evolutionary psychology in a surprisingly entertaining way. I say ‘surprisingly’ because, as a professional psychologist who specializes in evolutionary perspectives on human behavior, I have become accustom to (and quite frankly, bored of) reading about the ‘basics’ of evolutionary psychology. This is not to the fault of any one particular person, but rather the result of extensive reading on the topic: there seems to be only so many different ways to describe a psychological adaptation and only so many ways to describe Darwin’s paradoxical peacock! Not here, though. McCullough successfully captured my undivided attention on his ‘foundations’ chapters to evolutionary psychology. Expert or novice, I’m confident you’ll enjoy this book cover-to-cover.

Second, he does an incredible job explaining the science of kindness. Why do we help kin, strangers, and anyone else at all? Do we need group selection or multi-level selection to explain kindness and humanitarian change (spoiler: no, we don’t!*)? He then transitions seamlessly from science to history, showcasing the ways in which humanity has accelerated kindness and reciprocity on scales never before seen in the natural world. This two-part approach to The Kindness of Strangers was an unexpected, but delightful surprise. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the history of humanity’s modern transition to an enormously (successful) generous culture.

McCullough’s approach to kindness, focusing on the “why” of kindness (what are the evolved adaptations that allow for such behavior?) combined with the “how” of kindness (what are the acute events or triggers for the humanitarian revolutions that have occurred throughout our history, and how does it happen?) are reminiscent of the necessary, but oft forgotten distinction in (mainstream) psychology of proximate and ultimate explanations for human psychology and behavior. We cannot merely be satisfied with understanding how humanity became more generous and kinder – changes in laws, reactions to mass tragedy, and change of cultural norms – without understanding why such behavior occurs at an evolutionary level. Why do I help this stranger? Probably because, ultimately, the cost to me is low, the benefit to the stranger is relatively higher, and my reputation benefits!

The Kindness of Strangers is an engaging, comprehensive, and enlightening read for evolutionary experts and novices alike – a difficult feat to manage! McCullough’s primary thesis, that the humanitarian transformation that has occurred in recent human history can be understood as, or at least facilitated by, a small number of evolved psychological adaptations operating in response to several crises of suffering after the dawn of civilization, is an elegant one presented with phenomenal prose and style.

*McCullough’s chapter on (the problems with) group and multi-level selection is one of the best I’ve read. If you read only one chapter, read this one (Chapter 5, For the Love of Spock)!

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