Altruism, compassion, empathy, love, conscience, the sense of justice—all of these things, the things that hold society together, the things that allow our species to think so highly of itself, can now confidently be said to have a firm genetic basis.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that, although these things are in some ways blessings for humanity as a whole, they didn’t evolve for the “good of the species” and aren’t reliably employed to that end.
Quite the contrary: it is now clearer than ever how (and precisely why) the moral sentiments are used with brutal flexibility, switched on and off in keeping with self-interest; and how naturally oblivious we often are to this switching.
In the new view, human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse. The title of this book is not wholly without irony.”
― Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology
The quote from above is from the researcher who is also in the TEDTalks video in this post.
I think the topic is both interesting and relevant to the times we are in, where politicians openly gain support by expressing rank bigotry and so many of the rest of us seem more concerned about whether the poor and the downtrodden are somehow gaming the system rather than ways to make their lives better.
Robert Wright is not the first to observe that The Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — is fine in theory but much harder to observe in practice in a society where survival of the fittest is the driving ethos in our corporatized culture and we are so enamored of the politics of resentment.
This is one of those interesting TEDTalks that is a mixture of serious academic research and commentary about how that research can be viewed through the prism of pop culture.
Of course, that is the basic recipe for most TedTalks — research + pop culture = TEDTalks. But this one contains a bit more of the serious research. If you can get into that sort of the thing, it’s worth it.