By Barry Boyce
Senior Editor of the Shambhala Sun
When I visited Berkeley last month, one of the most stimulating conversations I had was with Dacher Keltner, founder and faculty director of The Greater Good, and a protégé of psychologist Paul Ekman. The Greater Good is a science center that clues people into how far evolutionary understanding has come from the simplistic notion of unbridled competition for survival as the summum bonum of human life. We’ve figured it out, and it’s simple: we need to get along to survive.
When I met Keltner, he seemed to have the easy manner and look of a surfer dude. (We didn’t get around to talking about whether he surfs or not, so I can’t confirm whether his sangfroid has anything to do with surfing.) I’ve been reading his new book Born to be Good and have been finding it both an enjoyable and eye-opening read. I’ll be doing a story for the Shambhala Sun later this year on compassion research and education and the book has been providing invaluable background.
Keltner makes it clear — based on scientific research (the currency and religion of modern times) — that we don’t always act in the pure pursuit of self-interest, and we don’t necessarily place material gain as a primary motivator in our lives. Yet, he pointed out to me, nearly all of the economists working in government, business, and academia — and quoted in the media — operate under the assumption that we do. The Greater Good, and the science it promotes, Keltner feels, will one day turn that assumption on its head. It will let people know that evolutionary studies have themselves evolved a great deal beyond the few commonplaces about survival of the fittest that we learned in our intro to bio course. That would be good.
A big focus for the Greater Good is on how to change the environment of our classrooms. (The center’s director, Christine Carter, specializes in education.) It makes me wonder about these spelling bees that are so popular on TV and in the movies these days. We get to watch the drama of children pitted against each other in a struggle to spell “Laodicean.” (You can look it up here). Now, I’m for excellence as much as the next person, but how about something that shows children working together for a common cause. I don’t know about you, but being thrown together and pitted against my classmates for so so many years helped to make school no fun at all.
Do you have any stories, life experiences, or observations about the damning effects of unbridled competition? Or the beneficial effects of cooperation? Or a lovely blending of the two?