The Science of Kindness

  • Since the tragic passing of Love Island presenter Caroline Flack, a discourse has opened up around the idea that we ought to be nicer to one another. Instagram pages are adorned with slogans instructing us to check up on our friends, to look after ourselves, and think about what we say online. It's a kindness boom.

    Humans are not the only species to experiment with kindness; what evolutionary biologists call altruism has been observed in a number of species, even in single-celled prokaryotes. In nature, however, kindness does not come without cost. Altruism can be defined as an action which decreases the fitness of the acting individual whilst increasing the fitness of another individual, and altruism comes at a metabolic cost and a subsequent loss of reproductive fitness. To a certain extent, to be kind is to be foolish.


    From an evolutionary standpoint, however, altruism can be advantageous. Vervet monkeys, for example, let out rather horrible-sounding alarm calls to warn their fellow monkeys of the presence of predators. Worker bees feed royal jelly to the larvae destined to be queen. Slime moulds sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of larger fruiting bodies. Walruses adopt orphaned young. Meanwhile, mongooses care for their elderly, and acts of altruism in dolphins have also been documented.


    Darwin’s original theory said that altruism could be explained by ‘group selection’. In group selection theory, an individual acts for the good of the species, even if this comes at the detriment of the individual. The popularity of this theory waned as the gene-centred view of evolution came into focus. Selfish genes might act for the good of the individual, but only where that helps the genes propagate themselves. They certainly do not extend the same generosity to some semi-arbitrary view of species.


    There might be an exception to a wholly selfish theory of selection, as demonstrated by W.D. Hamilton’s theory of kin selection, which asserts that selfishness is laid aside in the case of parental care. Considered through the lens of the selfish gene, it is clear that this is because the offspring shares 50% of the parent’s alleles. Essentially, the gene can bank on the offspring having another version of itself, so it is advantageous to make sure the offspring stays alive so it can pass that version to its next of kin. This theory can be expanded to other related individuals – or to individuals who could be assumed to be related, even if this is not the case in actuality.


    The other main explanation for altruism is its reciprocity: we help because we assume we will be helped in return. This can be quantified using elements of game theory such as the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’: if an individual acts selfishly, such as fleeing before warning others of a predator, this could be detrimental to the species as a whole. If, however, every individual acts for the good of the species at the slight cost of their own chances of survival, then the entire species benefits, including themselves.


    This might seem a bleak way of looking at things. Feel-good news stories about heroic animals become less heart-warming if the animals are altruistic for some perceived gain. Similarly, we don’t want to delegitimise our own kindnesses by giving them a selfish motivation – although we all enjoy the oxytocin rush that comes with doing something seemingly selfless.


    But does it matter? Does it matter if the video of a cat and a horse becoming friends has only arisen because the cat is convinced it may benefit later? Does it matter if we are kind because it feels good?


    Morally, this is a question that has plagued philosophers for centuries. It is true genes are selfish, but it is also a lot more complicated than that. The influence of our environment cannot be understated, not least because of the effect it has on our genome. Then, of course, there is the notion of free will: illusion or otherwise, it certainly feels like we have a choice in the matter.  Untangling the complex web of human behaviour is the work of several lifetimes. Yet, on an individual level, we do not have several lifetimes. We have just one, and we should try to do good with it.


    This time, it seems, Instagram has got it right.