Rethinking Human Nature

By Surricchio, Maria | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview
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Rethinking Human Nature


Surricchio, Maria, Stanford Social Innovation Review


Rethinking Human Nature BORN TO BE GOOD: The Science of a Meaningful Life Dachner Keltner 352 pages, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009

The conventional view of human nature is that self-interest is our strongest instinct. In this narrative, every action and decision that Homo economicus makes - the choice of a mate, what work to pursue, whom to befriend - is ultimately driven by self-interest. Even child rearing is merely a way to propagate one's genes.

This view of human nature is not without merit. Most people would agree that self-interest is a powerful driver of human activity. But is this a complete and accurate portrait of human nature? What about people's proclivity to act cooperatively and altruistically? Is it the case, as Adam Smith and T.H. Huxley believe, that prosocial behavior is solely a cultural construct created to curb our supremely selfish base impulses?

These are the questions that Dacher Keltner tackles in his new book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, strives to unearth clues about the neglected dimension of human nature: "positive emotions that bring the good in others to completion" - emotions that he believes have been serving mankind for millions of years.

As a postgraduate student Keltner worked with Paul Ecknian, a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions. Eckman's research built on the work of Charles Darwin, who in 1872 authored The Expresnon of the Emotions in Man & Animals, in which he tried to uncover the evolutionary value of facial expressions. Eckman's research proved the universality of both facial expressions and the physiological changes they create. It established that human emotions are genetically encoded physiological processes that are shaped by our evolutionary past, and that these emotions include not just the basic emotions (like anger and fear), but also what he calls higher order "ethical emotions" such as sympathy and awe.

In Born to Be Good, Keltner takes Eckman's insights one step further by proposing a new model of human nature that turns the conventional one on its head.

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