The genetics of kindness

(Uplift | Paul C Pritchard) Some people seem to been born with kindness, compassion and a strong desire to help their fellow humans. Is there something unique in their DNA that lends them to these particular vocations?

The ‘kind’ in ‘humankind’

… I hope that our culture shifts from a consumption-based, materialist culture to one that privileges the social joys (play, caring, touch, mirth) that are our older (in the evolutionary sense) sources of the good life … – Prof. Dacher Keltner

We all wonder about the children in our lives and speculate on their destinies. We project all sorts of realities on to them and project them into hypothetical futures: little Julia is so inquisitive, she has to open up everything to see how it works rather than actually play with it – I bet she’ll be an award-winning engineer; Henry is always in my wardrobe playing dress-up, I just know he’ll be a famous fashion designer one day; Alison is such a good listener and takes her time before she acts – she’ll make the perfect discerning lawyer or high court judge … and the list goes on.

Granted, sometimes it’s just a hunch or an intuition about the child in that very moment. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking. But could there be any truth in this theatre that family and friends create about predicting a child’s future? Take a colony of ants for example; they come in with a destiny. They just know what their role is in the great order of things. Somehow the invisible blueprints of their function or purpose is woven into their DNA. There’s no Mr. and Mrs. Ant speculating if she will be Queen one day or simply be working for the Queen.

Genetics to help us thrive

You get my point … we have evolved. We are perhaps outrunning our genetic coding with a plethora of employment necessities and choices. But in some crude way, we still function as a complete society because of a need for a variety of skill sets and talents. Perhaps our evolution (or design) is far smarter than we think. Perhaps, like the ants, there are numerous genetic talents to help our species to thrive and not just survive. We need the engineers and architects for shelter. We need the strong for farming and gathering. We need the writers and poets to give voice to complex emotional landscapes and to tell stories as learning and knowledge databases. We need the natural caregivers to take care of the sick and those in need. We need the musicians, dancers, and actors to reflect our joy and shared experiences …

These have been the tenets of human civilisation for thousands of years. Yes, we have evolved rapidly into an urban industrialised society and therefore have much more complex ‘worker’ needs. But all the new jobs are variations on some of the above worker themes.

Yet, of all the innate talents or standout qualities, I am most fascinated by those who seem to have been born with empathy and compassion, a strong desire to help their fellow humans. Those who devote their lives to the betterment and wellbeing of others. The care-professions; Nurses, Doctors, Surgeons, Palliative Caregivers, Pharmaceutical researchers, Therapists, Physiotherapists, etc. Is there something unique in their DNA that lends them to these particular vocations?

Born with it?

When scientists studied the empathy of over forty-six thousand people who had analysed their DNA through the genetics company 23andMe, they discovered that genes play a large part in their ability to understand others’ emotions. Kindness cannot exist without the ability to register rationally and empathically with the other’s situation.

While previous studies have discovered that women tend to be more empathetic than men, the researchers found no genetic factors to explain this, suggesting that gender differences are due to social conditioning or possibly the hormonal environment in the womb. – Olivia Goldhill

Researchers crunched the stats of the ‘genome-wide association studies’ and illustrated that changes in empathy have a direct correlation with gene variation.

“Any human attribute is partly genetic,” says Varun Warrier. “Even something like empathy that most people might think is not genetic does have genetic correlates.”

This does not mean that empathy and therefore the kindness response cannot be learned. But those who are predisposed to the kindness gene have an easier time recognising and responding with kindness when and where appropriately needed. They come in this way and therefore it’s a natural progression to be a round peg in a round hole when it comes to job fit.

“People who are genetically predisposed to higher levels of empathy might find it easier to view social cues and increase their levels for being empathetic,” says Warrier.

Learning to be kind

We have barely scratched the surface of DNA mapping and genome science which makes these very exciting times. The great news is that the majority of kindness and empathy is taught and modelled. When we see kindness displayed in the world and the emotive responses it inspires, we learn that being kind is a win-win. As a species, we’ve learned that being kind brings us ‘material’ and emotional rewards. Receiving obviously brings ‘material’ rewards, and giving makes us feel great. All humans get to experience giving and receiving. It’s a reciprocal loop. Humans are predisposed to kindness and the desire to help those in need. It’s reassuring to know that cultural and environmental factors can influence any gene patterning.

Reverence, love, tenderness, laughter, embarrassment … these emotions lie at the core of our capacities for virtue and cooperation. – Professor Dacher Keltner

Professor Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, explores in his new book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, the innate power of human emotion as threads that bind our connections.

“Born to be good” for me means that mammalian and hominid evolution have crafted a species, us, with remarkable tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic tasks of evolution—survival, gene replication and smooth functioning groups. These tendencies are felt in the wonderful realm of emotion, such as compassion, gratitude, awe, embarrassment and mirth.

Keltner offers some practical yet scientifically validated insights:

Meditating on a compassionate approach to others shifts resting brain activation to the left hemisphere, a region associated with happiness, and boosts immune functions.

Talking about areas of gratitude, in classrooms, at the dinner table or in the diary, boosts happiness and social well-being and health.

Experiences of reverence in nature or around morally inspiring others improves people’s sense of connection to others and sense of purpose.

Laughing and playing in the face of trauma gives the person perspective upon life’s inevitable difficulties, and improves resilience and adjustment.

Devoting resources to others, rather than indulging a materialist desire, brings about lasting well-being.

Be a blessing to someone. – Maya Angelou

So, the deeper I dig, the more I contemplate, the more I interact with the children around me, the more I realise just how exquisitely complex we are as a species. How unique and bursting with potential we all are. Perhaps there’s a complex blueprint that we are given at birth. But that is susceptible and malleable to social and emotional elasticity. It explains the billions of human variations we are … even if we come in with similar DNA coding. A child might display traits of that coding early on in their life … but all their experiences determine how that manifests; ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief.’

Source: Uplift


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