Most people understand Darwin’s evolutionary theories as promoting a concept of “survival of the fittest.” The strongest will survive. Competition will leave the weak behind.
It seems that Darwin himself argued against this concept’s misapplication to humans and human societies. Darwin wrote that compassion, not competition, is what has allowed humans to thrive and allowed us to evolve from small tribal groups to large and diverse societies.
Researchers at UC Berkeley and other institutions studying wellness confirm that it is our compassion, our urge to cooperate and sympathize with others, that has allowed us to evolve. “Survival of the Fittest” as it pertains to humans should be re-taught as “Survival of the Kindest.”
Even our brains have adapted and grown over the millennia, giving us a greater capacity to deal with the complexities of interacting with other people.
In thinking about kindness, we also know that one of the final stages of brain development in adolescents and young adults is the ability to empathize, to understand others better. The developing brain shifts. In the mid-teen years, the ‘going along with the pack’ mentality begins to shift to the self-absorption and ‘coming into oneself’ of older teens. The brains of young adults shift to a greater ability to think for oneself and to include other people’s needs in one’s own calculation and plans.
Human developmental theories propose different “stages” as we grow from infancy to adulthood to old age. These theories propose an ideal or epitome of what human development should be. Do we develop towards independence or interdependence? Towards competition or towards cooperation?
Erik H. Erickson theorized that the major conflict in adulthood is the struggle between growing towards more intimacy or towards more isolation; in other words, towards more connections with other people and more cooperation, or towards more aloneness, erecting walls to keep others out or to protect oneself.
Relational theory understands that the goal of human development is to mature in our ability to relate well with each other, and with the environment we find ourselves in. So, it seems that the one with the most friends—not the one with the most toys—wins. Maybe we Minnesotans have always understood this as we celebrate the ideal of kindness and hospitality.
May we continue to grow in our capacity to empathize, to care for those in need, and to cooperate. May we experience regular bursts of oxytocin, the “love” or “cuddle” hormone. May we thrive by acting on our evolutionary instinct to practice kindness.