What Does Evolution Have To Do With Being A Nice Person?

photographed by Lauren Maccabee.
If you haven't seen it trending on Twitter already, you might not know that today is World Kindness Day, an awareness day founded to encourage random acts of, well, kindness. As much as we wish that behaving altruistically was the norm, there are still those people we encounter on a near-daily basis who just seem like real crabs. And, on the flip side, it can be hard to hold ourselves to that standard of kindness on the days when we'd rather clothesline a cyclist than stop to make small talk.
So, on this well-intentioned holiday, we must face the question: To what extent can we blame our human nature for how we treat others?
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Luckily, global nonprofit kindness.org, in partnership with Oxford University, has been exploring this and many other questions on subject of kindness through its Kindlab research initiative. According to Oliver Scott Curry, PhD, director of the Oxford Morals Project as well as an advisor with kindness.org, kindness is ingrained in every person, but only to an extent.
"Evolution has built us to be altruistic to our families, community members, friends, mates, and in the presence of rivals," he explains. "Being kind helps spread your genes." At the most basic, primal level, helping out your family members and your closest loved ones means increased chances of survival. Plus, Dr. Curry says that acting selflessly may heighten your status in the eyes of potential partners (wink).
While our evolutionary instincts may explain why we're kind and helpful to our nearest and dearest, research has found that our capacity for kindness in general is partially genetic. "About 25% of the differences in how kind people are, are due to differences in genes," Dr. Curry says, while "about 10% is due to how they are raised by their parents." He adds that you can't count out environmental factors either, like where someone grew up, when considering how (or whether) someone shows kindness to others. In other words, he says, "it is not nature or nurture — it is both."
And, as for those folks who seem like they wouldn't lift a finger for anyone? Science doesn't currently have an explanation for them beyond the fact that, well, everyone's behavior varies to a certain extent. "Most people are pretty good most of the time, but there are a small number of saints and sinners at the extreme ends of the curve," Dr. Curry says.
So, the root of kindness is complicated, but the benefits that come with kindness are less so. Helping others in small ways has been found to reduce stress, and being nice to those around you may boost your self-esteem and improve your blood pressure. And that isn't even to say what kindness can do for the greater good.
"Kindness is a key ingredient in social change," says Jaclyn Lindsey, co-founder and CEO of kindness.org. "Choosing kindness can play a role in an incredible range of issues from bullying to mental health." That choice could be as minor as holding the door for someone or as major as challenging an unfair system — either way, it will make a difference for you and anyone else involved. And, if it ultimately helps further your bloodline, where's the downside?
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