Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Forgiveness in Action

An amazing story of forgiveness:

Nearly four months ago, a milk delivery-truck driver lined up 10 girls in a one-room schoolhouse in this Amish farming community and opened fire, killing five of them and wounding five others before turning the gun on himself...

The Amish and the non-Amish have given the widow of the gunman, Charles C. Roberts IV, and the couple’s three children comfort and unconditional support. Neighbors put up a Christmas tree at the local volunteer fire hall and decorated it with toys and gift cards for the family. Soccer players at Solanco High School in nearby Quarryville made it a point to show their encouragement by attending soccer matches played by the Robertses’ young son Brice...

On the wall in a firehouse dining room is a watercolor of the schoolyard painted by a local artist, Elsie Beiler. Its title is “Happier Days,” and it depicts the Amish children of Nickel Mines playing, without a care, before the shooting. Five birds, which some say represent the dead girls, circle in the blue sky above.

Ms. Beiler said the fact that she knew some of the victims’ families had inspired her to paint the scene and to donate some of the money from the sale of prints to the victims’ fund. “I pray for the families of the children,” Ms. Beiler said. “And I thought about what a struggle it was for them to live out each day in forgiveness.”

This capacity to forgive is rare in America today (think, for example, of the responses that followed 9/11) and I think many, perhaps most, people, including me, would find it difficult to embrace this kind of profound forgiveness. Some will even argue against forgiveness, and for retribution as a healthier and more just response to violence. A story like this also raises an interesting question: is it possible for forgiveness of this type to be practiced in a secular community, or does it require a concept of god and spirit in order to flourish?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Marriage, No Marriage and Happy Marriage

As a sociologist with an interest in family issues, headlines like “51% of Women Are Now Living Without Spouse” and “Why Are There So Many Single Americans?” are bound to catch my attention. Both of these articles, which appeared in the New York Times earlier this month, address the fact that in 2005, married couples became a minority in American households. A number of factors are shaping contemporary marriage trends: high divorce rates, Americans are waiting longer before they marry or are living with unmarried partners for longer periods of time and, since women outlive men, women are more likely to live longer as widows.

So for those who are married, and those who intend to (re)marry, what factors seem to contribute to partners’ well-being and life satisfaction? A 2004 study by Stutzer and Frey , which focused on the causal relationships between marriage and subjective well-being, found that the more similarities there were between partners, the higher they rated their life satisfaction. Stutzer and Frey found that couples with similar levels of education gain, on average, more satisfaction from marriage than spouses with large differences. This suggests that “similar or homogenous partners are expected to share values and beliefs” and that this homogeneity is likely to facilitate supportive relationships and a sense of companionship that comes from enjoying joint activities.

Stutzer and Frey also found that marriages in which the husband was the sole breadwinner and the wife stayed home, reported on average higher life satisfaction than dual income couples. Interestingly, it is women’s life satisfaction that is driving this distinction between traditional and dual income couples. While men from both kinds of couples report similar levels of life satisfaction, it is women in dual income marriages who report significantly lower levels of life satisfaction than women in traditional marriages. This suggests that in dual income couples, women continue to bear most of the responsibility for childcare and housework, despite sharing economic responsibilities with their husbands. The stress resulting from two jobs – one in the paid labor market and one in the home – might “reduce the subjective well-being most markedly for women with children.”

Although it seems that changing patterns of courtship, marriage, divorce, and labor force participation are among a number of factors that have resulted in the fact that Americans now spend half of their adult lives outside of marriage, it is clear that there are ways for people to “do” marriage better. While the findings of studies like those of Stutzer and Frey can be interpreted in a number of ways, if Americans want to focus on ensuring high levels of life satisfaction for themselves and their partners, one way to do so is to make sure that their partners are not bearing a disproportionate amount of the responsibility for various family tasks and to find ways to increase a sense of companionship that is fulfilling for both partners.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Outside Room 15: Chocolate Ice Cream vs. "Flow"

Once upon a time there was a newspaper columnist who spent most of her time trying to figure out how to live happily. One day, while watching her daughter rub her palms raw on the monkey bars, she met a PhD candidate who was doing the very same thing. That is, watching her daughter rub her palms raw while trying to figure out how to live happily. While the columnist had been relying mostly on anecdotal evidence to support her theories, the PhD candidate had been pulling all nighters for six years, forced, as academics are, to pin her theories to studies and statistics. The writer ran an idea past the researcher and a conversation started that, six months later, is still going strong every weekday outside Room 15.

KC: If I inventoried my kids’ moods, I’d bet that watching TV and eating ice cream and getting to play at a friend’s house longer would be the high points of every week. Is that happiness? And if it is, what’s so hard about that?

CCM: Who said happiness is hard? For kids I think it comes quite easily, even to moody American teenagers—70% report being quite happy.

There's definitely happiness—in the form of pleasure—that comes from laughing at a TV show, snarfing down ice cream, and playing with a buddy. A happy life is full of positive feelings, and those can easily come from a television show, an ice cream cone (which has the added benefit of triggering a physiological response in the brain’s pleasure center) and a playdate. The thing is, happy for how long? The feelings from the TV show fade. That ice cream is gonna boomerang when all that sugar dumps them. The one thing you mentioned that has a chance at generating lasting or meaningful happiness, in my opinion, is the playdate.

KC: So that’s why I’m having so much fun right now. Because I’m playing with my friend.

CCM: Well, you might be having just as much fun watching a funny movie while eating ice cream, but I'd say we’ve got two things going on right now that have been shown to create more lasting happiness. The first is “flow,” that blissful state when you are exercising your unique strengths. I love how Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-SENT-me-high-ee”), the world’s foremost expert on “flow,” describes it:

[A] person in flow is completely focused...Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification.
KC: I love flow--like when you forget to eat or when you leave your coffee in the microwave all morning because you got going on something and you never even heard the beep or missed the caffeine.

CCM: Exactly, and kids have flow too. Look at our three year-olds, Molly and Claire, and how they get lost in their pretend play. Joint imaginative play is hard for three year-olds, but they have so much in common [mainly, obsession with the Wizard of Oz] that what is normally difficult is actually, for them, the ideal developmental challenge. That’s a key aspect of flow: the challenge cannot be too difficult, which just leads to frustration and anxiety, or too easy, which would lead to boredom and loss of engagement.

KC: Just like Goldilocks and her porridge: not too hot, not too cold, just right.

CCM: That's it. And I’d argue that the happiness Claire and Molly experience from their play far surpasses what they’d get out of watching TV—which takes no skill whatsoever. Their imaginative play is actually an application of their unique skills and talents.

KC: It's the difference between fleeting pleasure and happiness, the difference a quick tickle and a long hug.

CCM: I think this is one of the important lessons in the childhood roots of adult happiness: kids learn to achieve flow when we enable them to participate in the activities likely to produce it--namely, those things that both challenge them and provide them with some immediate feedback.

KC: So that's the name of the game, helping them find flow. I got it. Makes me happy just thinking about it.

CCM: I gotta say that there is another really obvious thing happening here that is making us happy: we’ve got a meaningful social connection (aka friendship). Hanging out with you outside Room 15 and talking about life and happiness makes me feel connected, both to you and to our larger community of families and teachers.

KC: So let's talk about connection, because some connections feel good and some don't. You know? I have some questions about that.

CCM: It'll have to wait for next week.

References & Further Resources

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow : The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York, BasicBooks. Quote above on pp. 31-32.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., K. R. Rathunde, et al. (1993). Talented Teenagers : The Roots of Success and Failure. Cambridge England ; New York, N.Y., Cambridge University Press.

a little tickler about the correlation between friendship and happiness...
Diener, E. and M. E. P. Seligman (2002). "Very Happy People." Psychological Science 13(1): 81-84.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Mind of the Bystander

The latest issue of Greater Good includes several essays about “the psychology of the bystander.” The issue considers why some people do nothing when they witness a crisis, while others spring to action. Why do we all act like bystanders in some situations, but not in others? Are some people less likely to act like bystanders—and if so, is that because of the way they were raised, their religious background, or just the specifics of the situation they find themselves in at a given moment in time?

Included in the issue is an interview I conducted with Philip Gourevitch, the editor of The Paris Review who’s also the author of We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. Based on his reporting in Rwanda and elsewhere around the world, I wanted to ask Gourevitch what he sees as the factors that induce nations to intervene—or as is more often the case, not intervene—in regional violent conflicts around the world.

He had a pretty realpolitik take on international affairs, explaining how lofty humanitarian ideals are often difficult to put into practice. At one point in the interview he explained U.S. reluctance to intervene in regional conflicts, even in instances of genocide, as evidence that we feel a stronger emotional connection to people who live in greater proximity to us.

So if you find out that people whose existence you had never previously noticed are raping and axe murdering some other such people on the other side of the planet, do you say, “Let’s get in the middle of that. If we don’t stop it we’re all less safe—they’re human beings just like us”? Alas, it just doesn’t feel that way to most people. Of course, they’re human beings, and it’s a terrible thing, but the sense of a shared fate is weakened by distance and difference.

I’d have to agree with him. It's a pretty obvious point: Instinctively, we don’t feel as strong a moral obligation to people halfway around the world as we do to people next door to us, not to mention our own friends and family.

But I can’t say I feel good about that. And I also wonder whether it has to be so. Why exactly do we feel this way? Is it just a result of social conditioning, biological predispositions, or some combination of the two? And perhaps more importantly, even if we are hard-wired to feel this way, does that make it right?

Neuro-psychologist Joshua Greene has some pretty provocative answers to these questions. Greene studies the neurological bases of our moral decision making. In one study, he presented participants with different moral dilemmas. In one, you would imagine driving along a country road when you see a man by the side of the road, his legs covered in blood. This man will probably lose his leg if he doesn’t get to a hospital soon, but if you pull over, the blood would do a few hundred dollars worth of damage to the leather upholstery in your car. Should you pull over?

In another scenario, participants would consider receiving a letter from a reputable international aid organization, asking for a donation of two hundred dollars. The letter explains that a two-hundred-dollar donation will allow this organization to provide needed medical attention to some poor people in another part of the world. Would it be morally acceptable to not make the donation?

Greene tested participants’ brain activity as they mulled over these dilemmas. He assumed, as would most of us, that most people would find inaction in the first scenario to be morally reprehensible, but not in the second. He wanted to see if this moral distinction was at all reflected in participants’ brain activity.

He found a difference in brain activity when people considered “personal” moral dilemmas, where they come into close contact with someone like the man with the bloody leg, as opposed to “impersonal” ones like the request from the aid organization: When people considered the “personal” dilemmas, their brains showed greater activity in areas associated with emotion and social cognition.

What does this mean? In a paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Greene offers an evolutionary interpretation.

Consider that our ancestors did not evolve in an environment in which total strangers on opposite sides of the world could save each others’ lives by making relatively modest material sacrifices. Consider also that our ancestors did evolve in an environment in which individuals standing face-to-face could save each others’ lives, sometimes only through considerable personal sacrifice.Given all of this, it makes sense that we would have evolved altruistic instincts that direct us to help others in dire need, but mostly when the ones in need are presented in an “up-close-and-personal” way.

So, Greene speculates, due to our evolutionary history, we've developed stronger altruistic instincts toward people in close proximity to us. Until relatively recently, we had no definite proof of anyone else on the planet even existing, so we don't have an evolved sense of moral responsibility to individuals who seem more like abstract ideas than human beings. And thus our moral judgments are actually driven by the more immediate, instinctive, emotional responses we have to moral dilemmas, not the rational, abstract calculations we try to make. Greene goes on to ask, “What does this mean for ethics?”

We are tempted to assume that there must be “some good reason” why it is monstrous to ignore the needs of someone like the bleeding hiker, but perfectly acceptable to spend our money on unnecessary luxuries while millions starve and die of preventable diseases. Maybe there is “some good reason” for this pair of attitudes, but the evolutionary account given above suggests otherwise: We ignore the plight of the world’s poorest people not because we implicitly appreciate the nuanced structure of moral obligation, but because, the way our brains are wired up, needy people who are ‘up close and personal’ push our emotional buttons, whereas those who are out of sight languish out of mind.

Greene stresses that, so far, this is just a hypothesis. And I think there are a couple of different ways to interpret his (admittedly preliminary) findings. On the one hand, you could be rather fatalistic about the whole thing: This is just the way we’re wired, so we can’t really expect most people to feel a strong, instinctive moral obligation to others who look very different from them and live halfway around the world. When someone chooses not to care about those people in need, there’s no sense in condemning them for selfishness. They’re just being true to their nature.

But there’s another way to read these findings: Just because a moral judgment is instinctive doesn’t make it right. We should scrutinize all our moral decisions, even—perhaps especially—the ones that come to us reflexively. In fact, knowing the possible neurological (and even evolutionary) basis of these judgments might help dispel the notion that they’re beyond reproach. Most of us know that even if there's a biological basis to them, our whims and predispositions don’t always—or even often—direct us to moral and ethical choices, whether they concern out diet, sex lives, or relationships. So it would certainly seem to be a mistake to confuse our instinctive moral judgments for objective truths.

Greene sort of gets at this in the last paragraph of his Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper.

The maturation of human morality will, in many ways, resemble the maturation of an individual person. As we come to understand ourselves better — who we are, and why we are the way we are — we will inevitably change ourselves in the process. Some of our beliefs and values will survive this process of self-discovery and reflection, whereas others will not. The course of our moral maturation will not be entirely predictable, but I am confident that the scientific study of human nature will have an increasingly important role in nature’s grand experiment with moral animals.

And so where does all this leave Philip Gourevitch and the future of American interventionism? I don’t think it’s entirely clear. But I think it can, at the least, offer some hope for a heightened American sense of responsibility for the problems of those far less fortunate than us. How we should act on that sense of responsibility is a different story.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Altruism: Selfishness or God?

Altruism has been a hot topic in the blogosphere during the past 24 hours. has an interesting overview of the debate over the origins of altruism. The author concludes:

In any case, people have tried to explain away altruism in all its forms by attributing it all to one thing, like selfishness, or God. I think it helps to step back and really think about how the development of a trait is influenced by many factors, and is not easily reducible to one idea. However we have evolved, it has happened in such a way that there are a number of ways in which we might react or behave in an urgent situation, depending on the individual and numerous other factors. It is also important to realize that natural selection isn't some kind of orchestrated process sorting out the "bad" traits from the "good" ones. Evolution is pretty random sometimes, and has resulted in an amazing diversity of behaviors and traits.

Meanwhile, John Hawks notes a new study in Nature Neuroscience that "claims to have spotted a brain correlate of altruism" -- namely, the posterior superior temporal sulcus. You can find the study itself here and a simple summary of the methodologies and results here:

The results suggest altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it...“We believe that the ability to perceive other people’s actions as meaningful is critical for altruism,” [said one researcher].

In other news: McLean Hospital in Boston is launching a Positive Psychology institute "that will aim to teach healthcare providers and patients some of the more practical tenets of positive psychology, a mix of science and self-help that has been growing explosively in academia and building buzz in the media." This might be the first effort of its kind.

Compassionate Economist

The SF Chronicle published Rick DelVecchio's article today about John Letiche, a retired UC Berkeley economics professor who specializes in the interesting field of behavioral economics.

"He says all well-functioning national economies have one thing in common, and it doesn't matter their size or how far apart they are politically and culturally: Their leaders know what motivates their people and they provide incentives -- stable currency, balanced budgets, unemployment and health insurance -- that boost individuals' optimism and desire to work, invest and spend."

While Letiche is a fan of markets and globalization, it's interesting to note that he's advocating a moderate stance to its implementation:

"globalization works for no nation without a moderately liberal social safety net in place."

You can access a PDF of Letiche's recent article on how "well-considered" macroecomic policies like this has helped in economic transitions in the Nov. 2006 issue of the Journal of Asian Economics. I wonder what he would think of the movement to include Gross National Happiness as one of these measurable incentives?

I'm interested in fostering entrepreneurial solutions to these "social safety nets", in particular, social entrepreneurship and social enterprise. In my other life I publish the Social Enterprise Reporter, an online business newsletter for social entrepreneurs, and I'll be blogging on this topic here for Greater Good.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Some Thoughts on Family Policy

Recently I was swapping emails with a group of feminist activists I've known for 15 years. We were talking about progressive family policy.

At some point in the dialogue, I realized that we were starting from two very different assumptions. Theirs was that progressives should fight first and foremost for daycare and preschool, so that mothers could go to work and pursue worldly ambitions.

I couldn't help but feel that my friends saw kids as a burden that public policy should strive to alleviate, shades of Linda Hirshman. And until, oh, about 29 months ago, I pretty much shared their assumption and priorities.

Before my son Liko was born, we figured that after six months my wife would go back to work and we'd engage some form of childcare. Wrong. Liko didn't want his parents to go to work. This might have been a problem, except that we agreed with him. We didn't want strangers to take care of our son. We didn't think it was best for him or for us.

And so we overhauled our lives: first she stayed home with him and I worked; then I (mostly) stayed home with him and she worked; recently I went back to full-time work and she's home with him again. I've thought a great deal about our caregiving impulse and its relationship to our values, and what it might mean for the family policies I'd support as a parent.

UC Berkeley prof Neil Gilbert neatly identifies two feminist models of family, consistent with the different assumptions my friends and I held. The first, functional equality, emphasizes “a model of gender relations marked by a symmetrical division of labor and responsibility” and the elimination of gender categories altogether. This model—whose current most vocal proponent is Linda Hirshman—tends to negate the value of caregiving and argue for children to be placed in daycare, as an alternative to taking parents out of the labor market. The second feminist model, social partnership, regards marital relations “as a partnership built on economic interdependence, mutual adjustment, and self-realization through a combination of domestic activity and paid employment.” My friends embraced the functional equality model; my family has adopted the social partnership.

Just to be clear: Childcare and preschool are good. High-quality childcare should, like health care, be available to anyone who wants and needs it. Moreover, I believe that daycare and preschool should be guaranteed and tightly regulated by government. It's a matter of equity as well as economic development. More women (and men) in the workforce is good for the economy.

Good for the economy, but is it good for children? Is it necessarily a good thing for all mothers and all fathers to march off to work every morning? There are literally hundreds of empirical studies that answer no to these questions; taken together, they suggest that parents working outside the home too much, too early in a child's life is bad for the kid as well as the parents.

In her new book What Children Need, Jane Waldfogel surveys the research and synthesizes the results. She finds that "Children whose mothers work long hours in the first year of life or children who spend long hours in child care in the first several years of life have more behavioral problems...Children do tend to do worse [in health, cognitive development and emotional well-being] if their mothers work full-time."

The effects of paternal employment have hardly been studied; social science firmly places the burdens and joys of caregiving on moms.

Does this mean that conservatives are right? Are working moms guilty of neglect and responsible for America's social ills? Emphatically: no. First of all, and most critically, we need more men to contribute more to taking care of kids.

We need to be careful in interpreting these results [writes Waldfogel], given that in nearly all cases studied the fathers were either working full-time themselves or were not in the household at all. These results tell us the effect of having two parents working full-time or a lone mother working full-time. And so their clearest message is that children would tend to do better if they had a parent home at least part-time in the first year of life. They do not tell us that the parent has to be the mother.

The number of guys who take care of children has doubled during the past ten years, for reasons that remain mysterious (although I think it has quite a lot to do with the success -- yes, friends, success -- of the feminist and GLBT movements, which have altered gender roles and changed power relations). Male mothering (there's a controversial use of a verb!) should be institutionalized, supported, protected, ennobled, and promoted.

Second, the studies also show that parental sensitivity and responsiveness "is the most important predictor of child social and emotional development--more important than parental employment." So there's no point in staying home with your kid if you're not sensitive and responsive--better to hire a nanny. This also means in part that the gender of the caregiver is irrelevant; what's important is that the caregiver--nanny, dad, mom, whoever--is responsive and sensitive to the child's individual needs. (My fellow radicals: forget all that utopian nonsense about kids being raised in creches. Practical experience and research, mostly on Kibbutzim, has shown that treating kids like collective property is actually harmful to their health and well-being. Plus, most parents don't like it.)

Third, we need genuinely family-friendly policies that respect parents' choices and will allow parents of any gender to stay at home as much as possible with their kids for at least the first year. To my mind, this needs to be the progressive policy priority. Such policies are well-known and widely implemented outside of the US, consisting of paid parental leave and wage replacement, job and legal protections, guaranteed health care, requiring employers to consider requests for part-time work, etc. As usual, the social democracies of Scandinavia set the standard; meanwhile, the United States looks like it watches too much Fox News.

It should be acknowledged that support for parents to stay home can help keep parents out of the workforce or inhibit career growth. This impacts women most, but there are solutions to this problem. Sweden combines benefits for parents to stay home with comprehensive daycare and preschool programs and career support for when they go back to work, with good results. But I don't want to move to Sweden. It's too damn cold.

Biology, Empathy, and Science Journalism

Last month we reviewed a study by Dutch neuroscientist Erno Jan Hermans (and colleagues) that set out to test whether testosterone can inhibit a person's ability to empathize with someone else. To find out, the researchers dosed twenty women with either testosterone or a placebo, and then measured their ability to mimic facial expressions, which previous research has shown to be one marker of empathy. Their results showed that testosterone might indeed reduce empathic behavior.

I initially objected to publishing a brief about the study in the magazine. I'm automatically suspicious of the methodologies and conclusions of any study that suggests biology is behavioral destiny. Plus, even if the science is solid, I didn't think it would be useful to our readers. If testosterone really does limit empathic behavior, so what? How does that knowledge help our readers?

I talked it over with the other editors, Jason Marsh and our resident social psychologist Dacher Keltner, who reviewed the methodologies and felt they checked out. We agreed that reporting the study fell within the mission of the magazine. And so we turned to discussing ways to report the findings that would not play to social stereotypes about men and women. Looking back, I can see that I was learning something about how we can talk about science in popular forums.

It's first critical to begin with the fact that all human beings have the capacity for empathy; it's fundamental to our psychology, with a basis in evolution. Men are human beings and are therefore capable of empathy. That puts the findings in broad perspective. In addition, we need to keep individual variance in mind; I've met lots of men who are more empathetic than many women, and I'm sure you have, too.

Second, it's important to acknowledge the limits of the study. To get those, you first have to read the study and talk to the scientists themselves. Most scientists are extremely reluctant to speculate or make sweeping generalizations based on limited findings, for good reasons; they're also careful to acknowledge the limits of their methodologies and to suggest further areas of study. This doesn't stop journalists, politicians, and bloggers from seizing on findings and putting them at the service of their personal and political agendas; hell, I've done it plenty of times. (That's our job, but I think we can perform our jobs more responsibly.)

In the brief we published in the current issue of the magazine (whose symposium is on the figure of the bystander in contemporary science and culture), we were careful to reflect the limitations of this methodology, noted by the researchers themselves. "While facial mimicry may be one component of empathic behavior, it is clearly not the defining feature," writes Mario Aceves, a fellow with the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, in the brief. "Before we conclude that testosterone leaves men at an emotional disadvantage, additional studies must show that testosterone affects the many other dimensions of empathy."

My colleague Jason Marsh asked Erno Jan Hermans for a comment. "[Testosterone] reduces empathetic behavior; we can't say it reduces empathy,” he said. His research also shows that while "testosterone is a regulating factor in gender-specific behavior... obviously you can never rule out that there are cultural differences in play."

Last and certainly not least, scientific findings of this type don't dictate some kind of automatic ethical or political response. They do not prove that men are by nature emotional dolts, and therefore not accountable for idiotic behavior. They do not suggest that women are in essence loving, nurturing, dove-like creatures of ethereal beauty. No woman who wants to live in a more empathetic, compassionate society should plan to launch all-female communes in South America--even if you were to screen out women with high levels of testosterone, you're still not going to achieve a feminine utopia like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland. Human beings are too complex. Attacking complexity is not the path to a better world.

Science is an evolving dialogue, in which new conclusions are constantly modifying old ones. Newton wasn't wrong about how motion changes with time, but Einstein took his ideas to the next level when he showed how mass bends spacetime. When back in the Seventies, Irven DeVore and Robert Trivers launched the field of sociobiology--which sought to find biological bases for human behavior--critics quite rightly raised the specters of Social Darwinism and Nazi eugenics, both of which invoked biological science as justification for policies that ranged from abandonment of the poor, denying rights to women and many other people, forced sterilization, and systematic genocide.

But as sociobiology branched off into evolutionary psychology and behavioral ecology, researchers discovered some things about human beings that directly contradicted the specious, self-serving assumptions of the Social Darwinists. Scientists like Johnathan Haidt, Leda Cosmides, Marc D. Hauser, and many others have found that human beings appear to be hardwired for compassion, altruism, cooperation, and so on. Biology might indeed be destiny, but it's a provisional, sanguine kind of destiny that doesn't automatically lead to pessimistic or destructive views of humanity. Above all, a great deal of new science is demonstrating the degree to which we humans are tough, adaptable little monkeys, defined right down to our neurons by a capacity for continuous growth and evolution.

Whenever we read about some new study about parents and children, men and women, we should remember how searching and tenuous the science is, and refrain from sweeping generalizations that might contradict our deepest moral instincts. We can't ever know where our questions will lead, but we can't be afraid to ask them.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Welcome to the Blog for the Greater Good!

Here at Greater Good Magazine, we cover research into the roots of compassion, altruism, empathy, and other prosocial human behaviors and emotions. Welcome to our trial blog, set up as a test run before we re-launch our website. My name is Jeremy, and this past September I started as the Greater Good'smanaging editor. I hope you join the conversation.