Is there a scientific basis for kindness?

Dr Claudius van Wyk [i] is director of the ET Group – a holistic wellness consultancy. Here he explores some reflections upon scientific foundations of a philosophy of kindness – from chemistry and biology to psychology and society. He attended our first day event in Harehills called ‘Exploring Common Ground.

Darwin would have been mortified, had he been alive today, to find his theory of evolution, has been mechanistically reduced to the simplistic idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’ and consequently used to justify, life-degrading and unethical worldviews. This misrepresentation has surely been a factor in society’s fixation on power and control rather than on reciprocity and shared purpose. In contrast, new holistic scientific perspectives show bonding and collaboration to be a driving force behind human evolution, so much so that a more accurate interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution could be seen as ‘the survival of the fittest relationships’!

The root word of kindness is ‘kin’ which refers to ‘kinship’ and ‘family’. ‘Kindness’ is usually described as behaviour marked by the ethical characteristics of concern and consideration for others and is considered a virtue in many cultures and religions.

Chemistry

A phenomenon resembling ‘kinship’ – the clustering into constellations for risk minimisation and synergetic benefit – is evident even at the level of organic chemistry through the process of bonding. Chemical ‘synergy’ is when chemicals form such bonds that the whole no longer resembles the parts.

Biology

In biology, symbiosis occurs when organisms form mutually beneficial relationships. A further development – endosymbiosis – begins to resemble the synergetic effect found in chemistry when the parts get enfolded in a greater whole – such as in the cell.

Ecology

Organisms within ecosystems are interdependent for survival. Symbiosis and interdependence form the basis of forest ecologies for example, where plants animals, microbes, fungi and soil form a supportive web of life in differentiated roles of energy producers, consumers and decomposers – to such an extent that it is not possible to understand a tree without understanding the complex interrelationships, exchanges and communications that go to making the forest as a whole.

Until recently during the first three industrial revolutions, mechanical metaphors and linear thinking have dominated our thinking. But over recent decades eco-literate thinking and new disciplines such as systems thinking, and complexity science have emerged to provide a more effective and holistic perspective. [ii] 

Holism

The little-known originator of holism, Jan Christian Smuts, [iii] whom Einstein and Churchill held in high regard, spoke about ‘affinities’ of attraction and opposites of repulsion. For his holistic science this demonstrated the drive to greater integration, through collaborative relationship, as the driving force of evolution.  

In contrast to populist misinterpretations of Darwin’s idea of evolution, Smuts suggested that evolution was rather the realization of potentials through collaborative processes. In the human social world the greatest achievements have been made by collaboration and sharing – of which science itself is the foremost example. Smuts suggested a further step was justified and built upon Lamarck’s controversial suggestion that there was intention behind evolution. Both richness of diversity and symbiotic affinities account for the evolutionary ascension of matter into life, and life to mind, mind to personality, personality to society, and society to the generation of abiding ‘values’.

Social Systems

In human social systems the concept of bonding, or kinship, and therefore expressions of kindness can also be considered as evolutionary. Evolutionary cultural psychology [iv] has suggested there is a process of maturity – an ascending spiral of human psychological ‘archetypes’ based on different types of increasingly effective bonding motivations.

For example ‘cavemen’ bonded for survival, whereas ‘clansman’ bonded for security. In reaction to the collectivism of the clan, ‘warrior archetypes’ bonded for power and control. In contrast to such individualism, ‘law makers’ bond to protect the civil or religious rules of a prevailing societal worldview, faith or ideology. In reaction Entrepreneurs develop relationships and perspectives focused on achieving individual goals, whereas Humanists, bond around human solidarity and mutual respect.

These psycho – social perspectives represent the stages in history that we have reached to date. However, we are collectively readying ourselves for a leap towards a new stage of evolution represented by the archetype of the Systems -thinkers who develop multi perspective information-sharing around existential challenges. Systems-thinkers and future archetypes have reached a level of consciousness called second tier thinking that is able to look back over the previous forms of motivation from a meta level of thinking. Even more evolved future higher perspectives exemplified by ‘Universalists’, like the Dalai Lama for example, express a re-generative relationship with everyone and with the entire living milieu, for deeper self-realisation. Finally one might say, even from a secular perspective, that enlightened avatars – such as the Buddha and the Christ – transcended self to experience totality-of-being in order to become agents of universal self-realisation. And we can therefore hope that a future society can develop to become the ecologists of the cosmos might be an aspiration towards which we can individually and collecively aspire – whether such heights are attainable or not.

In conclusion then, we can say that ‘kindness’ therefore can be considered as an evolutionary behavioural expression of nature’s holistic drive to self-realisation through evolutionary collaboration and the realisation of ever greater wholeness. Kindness is thus enfolded in the universal evolutionary process.

[i] Claudius van Wyk has a doctorate in holistic medicine and a master’s degree in ethics as well as being an authority on complexity science and the origins of holism.

[ii] Through writers such as Donnela Meadows, Peter Senge, Dave Snowden

[iii] In 1926 Jan Christian Smuts wrote ‘Holism & Evolution’. Following a presentation to the Royal Scientific Society in 1931, Einstein said of his work that it would come to dominate the 21st century and beyond along with the work on quantum physics that he and others innovate.

[v] Professor Clare Graves in his theory of Spiral Dynamics that was later developed by Don Beck and others, showed that ‘mind’ and ‘personality’ was also evolutionary in its internal representation of reality that informed behaviours such as kindness.

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