On Kindness in Nature

I just read Jonah Lehrer’s article in last week’s New Yorker about biological theories that try to reconcile altruistic behavior with Darwin’s theory of evolution: Darwin’s theory assumes that life is a harsh struggle for survival and propagation in which only the strongest and most adaptable spread their genes to the next generation, which, of course, leaves little room for selflessness or kindness. The question it comes down to is whether altruism is possible in the natural world.

Lehrer explains how scientists in the 1960s came up with a formula that explained away altruism by translating it into selfishness: If the cost is not too great, individuals will help others who are genetically related to them because they will indirectly be furthering the spread of their own genes. This theory is called “inclusive fitness” and has been the foundation for evolutionary biology for the past forty years. The formula was used, for example, to explain why ants, who are very closely related to each other, so easily sacrifice themselves for the common good of the colony. Recently, however, the same researcher who promoted the inclusive fitness theory in the 1960s, changed his mind and now claims the formula is bogus.

I’m glad kindness can’t be reduced to a formula that translates it into selfishness! I’m suspicious of theories that try to simplify the world to neat logical principles. Not everything needs to be explainable to human reason.

Recently I read Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle,” an account of his travel to South America. One of the passages that stayed with me most vividly is when Darwin picks up a little toad and releases into a pool, thinking he’s doing the animal a favor. But the little toad doesn’t know how to swim and starts to drown.  

To me, Darwin’s idea of “the survival of the fittest” feels like a military doctrine, invented by men who had to justify their own dominance over others by turning it into a law of nature. I can’t believe it’s as simple as that. I like Darwin much more when he feels bad for almost drowning a toad.

I don’t believe in God, creationism, or intelligent design, but I am superstitious when it comes to kindness. I dislike doctrines that eliminate kindness from the equation of life. Whatever the theories and doctrines say, I see kindness as the one force that makes the world less awful.

A few weeks ago I witnessed an expression of interspecies kindness: Dina had had a bad day and lay on the living room crying heartbreakingly. None of us knew what had happened or how to console Dina. Tulah, the cat, seemed particularly upset about Dina’s despair: she paced back and forth without taking her eyes off Dina. Eventually she came to Dina, pushed her face into Dina’s face, and started licking away the tears.  Dina put her arms around Tulah and stopped crying.

I’m sure such an expression of animal kindness is not surprising to people with pets, but for me this was the first time to see an animal recognizing human distress and reacting to it with kindness. Of course, after thousands of years of co-existence it isn’t all that surprising that cats and dogs are attuned to human emotions, but I did some research and found that interspecies kindness or empathy isn’t limited to humans or pets. A biology paper reported that wild bottleneck dolphins have been observed helping injured animals (whales and tortoises) that had trouble coming up for air. I also found a biology paper that described a group of wild capuchin monkeys that had adopted an orphaned marmoset baby. And I even found a story about a lioness in Kenya who had developed an affection for oryx. She would follow the oryx herds, not to hunt, but to try to adopt oryx babies, whom she tried to protect from other hungry lions. For her own meals, she only hunted warthogs.

Such un-Darwinian instances of kindness make me happy. I hate the idea of living in a world where we are all programmed to mercilessly compete with each other for survival. I like to know that there are exceptions. I doubt that any mathematical formula can ever explain life. How can consciousness understand itself?

It may sound farfetched, but, ultimately, isn’t it possible that all it comes down to is the ability of life to communicate with itself? From DNA code, to neural cells, to animals communication, to human language?  And isn’t empathy the greatest miracle of life: one sentient being’s ability to recognize that another sentient being shares a similar experience of being alive?   

Suddenly an old childhood memory comes back to me. I must have been eight years old when, for the first time, I saw my grandfather cry. He was not an emotional man. He was an airplane engineer who was used to always being right and who had little patience for what he considered stupidity. He was a radical atheist, who insisted that only idiots believe in god.  But he did have a strong connection to nature. That day, my grandfather had been out in the garden to prune some branches of an old poplar tree. As my grandfather put his saw into the tree, something strange happened.

“The tree started crying,” said my grandfather, and he described how the tree trembled and how tears, or drops of blood, dripped from the cuts he had just made. He cried as he described how he had ignored the tree’s suffering and had continued sawing.