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Better Angels? Of Our Nature? Really?

Updated: Feb 3

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection…when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. President, 1st inaugural address

Better angels of our nature?  Where are they? Honestly, look around. Do we humans really have within our nature better angels?  If so, what are they?  How do we get at them?

Dr. Steven Pinker wrote a book in 2011, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He claims that despite the impression created by media, violence has decreased on various scales, including interpersonal violence, war, and even genocide.

Four motives orient humans away from violence and toward cooperation and altruism according to Pinker. Empathy and compassion: which prompts us to feel the pain of others and take into consideration their interests. Self-control: which helps us anticipate the consequences of acting on our impulses. Moral Sense: which holds up a set of norms. Reason: which allows us to zoom out and see from different angles.

Now here’s the little interesting tidbit that Pinker hints at (it’s not his main thesis at all).  This movement toward our better angels stems in part from our biology. Now that could raise a few eyebrows.

Dr. Nicholas Christakis takes this idea a whole lot further in his book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. Now Christakis wrote Blueprint in 2019. This is after seeing a whole lot more nasty stuff out there in the world including his own (and his wife’s) harassment by Yale students. Christakis, by the way, is a physician and a doctor of sociology and the head of Yale’s Human Nature Lab (where he is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science in the departments of Sociology, Medicine, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Statistics and Data Science, and Biomedical Engineering!). He, like Pinker, is an optimist about us human beings despite it all.

Christakis claims that we would have no society at all if it weren’t for the fact that we have the innate capacity to be good.  We have those better angels of our nature. We can love, we can form friendships, we can cooperate, we teach each other where the best apple trees grow and how to grow more sort of thing.

That good stuff capacity (Christakis calls them a “social suite”) is in our genes, our DNA and it continues to evolve.  Maybe not along a linear path, but he apes Martin Luther King, Jr, in his pronouncement that “the arc of evolutionary history is long. But it bends toward goodness.”

Both Christakis (and Pinker) claim that scientists have focused on the dark side of our biological heritage, which we all notice quite a lot…the aggression, the cruelty, and selfishness, for too long.

Now if you’re wondering how Christakis goes about proving his thesis, it’s a fun ride for history buffs.  He explores the accounts of things like Utopian communities and shipwrecks.  I got carried away with his account of shipwrecks and read more about two in the New Zealand National Geographic.  The ships were the Grafton and Invercauld.  You really have to read the details to get a sense of how we humans can call on our better angels...or not; but when we do, we have a much better chance of all surviving and thriving.

A quick dive.  In 1864 both these ships wrecked on Auckland Island.  In one case it’s a tale of cannibalism and strife and 3 of 21 surviving.  In the other situation, all survive and do things like teach each other different languages. Christakis uses a metaphor of the double helixed DNA molecule.  We have two strands intertwining.  We have both approaches to life available to us innately.

It’s kinda like that ole tale about the two wolves inside of us. And in that story we wonder which wolf will win.  The answer, whichever one we feed.

So that’s what it all boils down to...this issue of which aspect of our human nature we choose to tap into, which we cultivate, which “we feed.”  This brings up how we do this thing, should we choose, of going about feeding our better angels - who do we listen to, how do we work with ourselves.

One kooky artificial intelligence intervention that Christakis mentions is a case of putting three people and a “bot” together to complete a task.  The bot is engineered early on to make a mistake.  The bot then says something along the lines of, “I’m sorry.  I have made a mistake. Even bots make mistakes.”  Hah. This seems to create psychological safety and closeness and higher performance in the group.  Well, what can we learn from that?

I was reading an interview with Anne Lamott in Time a few days ago.  She’s asked several questions about how to go about living life these days. I’m going to share snippets of it with you with the aim of claiming and cultivating our better angels. AL is Anne Lamott and SS is the interviewer.

AL: I wanted to start my book, ‘it’s all hopeless,’ because a couple of things can be true at once. It really feels completely hopeless. And at the same time, I always turn to the serenity prayer which says, ‘grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,’ which is 99.9% of things, ‘and the courage to change the things I can.’


I tell my writing students, you start where you are. You start where your feet are. And that means, ‘what can I do today?’


I find a place to land. I land in my faith. I land in my understanding that the people about 15 minutes from where I live are having extreme food deficits. So what I will probably do is to go to Safeway and fill up a couple of bags of canned food and dried food and, of course, Oreos.


And I practice radical self-care. I’m making myself a really delicious breakfast, I’ve boiled some eggs, and I’m gonna have egg salad with lots of mayonnaise. I think fat is delicious, fats are one of the communion elements. And I’ll see how I can be of service today.


SS: There’s a lot of anger in the U.S. right now. Does it get to you?


AL: There’s a chapter in the book based on what Martin Luther King said, which was, ‘don’t let them get you to hate them.’ Once you let them get you to hate them, you’re doomed, you’ve lost your center, you’ve lost all that is wonderful and true and sweet and dear and probably messy about your life.


Probably my biggest character defect is judgment: ‘This is good. This is bad. They’re the problem, they’re the reason.’


SS: And then what?


AL: And then you ask, what’s the action I can do today?


Do loving things. You want to change your whole day? Just for the next few hours, if you’re in traffic, let other people go first. Stop what you were about to do, and let other people go first.


The restoration, both of our own selves and our community, it’s grassroots, it’s small things, it’s like Mother Teresa said: ‘No one can do great things, but each of us can do small things with great love.’


SS: I loved what you wrote about the ‘third third of life,’ and how it has changed your perspective.


AL: I’m 67. There are a lot of things I really don’t love. I don’t love the upper arms. I’m a really religious woman, and I’m obsessed with the fact that my upper arms just look like hell.


But what I do love about being older are the blessings of myopia—I can’t see as much of what’s wrong with everybody else as I used to be able to.


By the time you’re about 50, people that you really can’t live without have died, and you start to take your mortality seriously. You start to realize you do have one short, precious life. How are you going to live it?


[snip] If you’ve got a problem, you gotta go look in the mirror. Same with what we were talking about earlier, the anger. It’s not themThey are not my problem.


SS: My fantasy is to escape to another place or country where I’ll definitely be nicer.


AL: If it’s out there, it’s not gonna work. If it’s another country, if it’s a perfect spouse, if it’s a perfect diet, if it’s out there, it’s gonna work only for part of a day.


It’s not out there. No, it’s an inside job…. Horribly, horribly. It’s an inside job.


SS: Can you talk a bit about why your friendships are so important?


AL: The reason I have so much religious faith is because of the quality of my friendships. You have three or four people that you let into the very center, your heart cave, who know the very center of you and did not run screaming for their cute little lives. And because of the quality of my best friendships, I have faith that life tilts towards the good and that no matter what happens, I’ll come through.


SS: You’re a Sunday school teacher; what are your kids asking about these days?

AL: Mostly, what they want to know is what you want to know and what I want to know. Something scary has happened. What do we do in the face of that?

You know what we do, Susanna? We do what we can. And we do it one day at a time.


And this is what I’m taking away in general from Lincoln, Pinker, Christakis, and Lamott. Hope and optimism...and response-ability for doing my part to bend the arc toward goodness in whatever situation, organization, culture, family I find myself in. For the sake, the survival and flourishing, of all. (And leadership matters though I didn't mention it earlier. In one case of a shipwreck, the Julia Ann, one of the crew started to bring the captain's heavy bag of $8,000 dollars to shore, but the captain told him to leave it. Instead to carry one of the children. The money was lost, the child was saved. It bent the arc and set the tone of the culture toward kindness and care for each other.)

And a little food for my better angels today. Maybe for you too. Start where I am with what I can do. Do practical, loving things like buy some food for someone, let someone go first in line. Consider the needs of others. Resist the hate. Not let my anger turn to hate. Understand that I’m a work in progress and compassionately continue to work with my own self-awareness and tendency to judge...and keep remembering that it's an inside job. Some self-care and self-compassion. And, of course, be ever so grateful for my friends and family who know the real me and have not run away.

I’m not going to turn into Mother Teresa today. Truthfully, I’m still mad at a couple of people in my life. I have harbored fantasies of kicking them in the shins.  But it gives me comfort to know that I do have those better angels that are just as much a part of me as my shin-kicker self.

How might we journey together as we head toward Lincoln’s birthday by taking comfort in knowing that we all do have better angels in our very nature…calling on them, tapping them, and allowing them to take the lead more often?

(Please feel free to send me what feeds your better angels, June)



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