Not Oprah’s Book Club: Born to Be Good

Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner is just the kind of reading this eternal idealistic, un-apologetically rosy lady likes. In it Keltner, the head of the Science Center of the Greater Good at U.C. Berkeley, takes on the Machiavellis, Ayn Rands, and Freuds of the world and makes a case for why weren’t just selfish assholes. Keltner sums it up:

Clearly we are wired to pursue self-interest, to compete, and to be vigilant to the bad. Those tendencies make evolutionary sense, they are built into our genes and nervous systems. They are part of human nature. But that is half the story.

The other half of the story, and one long neglected, is what Keltner calls “survival of the kindest” He and his colleagues draw on everything from our Cro-Magnum ancestors–who prove deeply dedicated to caretaking and collaboration–to contemporary physiology–so many health problems are associated with being isolated, indicating that close bonds are a foundation of basic human survival. Frans de Waal observed that our closest animal cousins–chimpanzees–become deeply distressed when they see other apes suffering. In Keltner’s research of status hierarchies, which emerge shockingly fast even among children as young as two-year-old, it is those with emotional intelligence and empathy that inevitably become head honchos: “Power goes to those who are socially engaged.”
Word em up. I love this. As if this feel-good view of human nature isn’t reason enough to read this book, there are all sorts of fascinating gems related to gender and sex. For example, did you know that Bonobo females are sexually active for about five years before they become fertile? They copulate freely with many of the adult males in their immediate social group and female and male homosexual relations are common.
Kind and frisky? What could be better?

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  1. Comrade Kevin
    Posted May 20, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I know I am frisky, but I aim to be kind.

  2. mehitabel
    Posted May 20, 2010 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Shouldn’t it be “Cro-Magnon” instead of “Cro-Magnum”?

  3. somnambulicious
    Posted May 20, 2010 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this review! I’m familiar with the Raising Happiness blog at the Greater Good Science Center, but I missed Born to Be Good. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, and what do you know – my local library has it on the shelf!

  4. kisekileia
    Posted May 20, 2010 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    “In Keltner’s research of status hierarchies, which emerge shockingly fast even among children as young as two-year-old, it is those with emotional intelligence and empathy that inevitably become head honchos.”
    Seriously? You’ve got to be kidding me. What that basically says is that every social hierarchy has the best, kindest people at the top. It ignores injustice. It ignores bullying, which gets much of its sting from the bully having more social power than a victim. It’s a bullshit excuse for accepting unacceptable status quo, and a feminist website should realize that.

  5. Suzann
    Posted May 21, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    People with a knowledge of ‘social’ interactions and emotional motivation techniques *do* rise to power. Understanding people is the first step in motivating them to do what you want. It is just that – like the comic book says – not everyone “uses their powers for good”.
    Doesn’t change where power comes from.
    Bullies are excellent architects of group dynamics and power exchanges. If they weren’t, they couldn’t be such effective abusers.
    The trick is to overlay morality and/or empathy over the emotional tools so that people are more inclined to use the tool to a good end. But the tool itself? Neutral.
    Just as I could use the indifferent plumbing to douse you in cold water, or pour you a nice warm bubble bath, so I can use emotional tools to move you by kindness or move you by fear. But in terms of understanding? My knowledge comes from the same base. Tne values come from me, not from my tools.
    All tools are neutral apart from the user.

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