Kindness and Civilization

Kindness and Civilization June 6, 2011

In an earlier post I highlighted the theory that religion gave rise to civilization.  Now comes another theory that might even further explain the beginnings of civilization: kindness.

The research by Brian Hare of Duke University’s Institute for Brain Sciences suggests that kindness provided the origins of the socialization among hominids.  Gareth Cook summarizes the idea in the Boston Globe:

Human intelligence is often described as a steady accumulation of new kinds of smarts, as the brain expanded. But Hare has come to believe this would not have been possible unless our species first made an emotional breakthrough — the ability to tolerate each other, to be kind enough, and patient enough, that we could cooperate more deeply. This led to language, tools, and civilization.

This is a compelling thesis.  But I’m not sure it’s right to call it an “emotional breakthrough”–Aristotle certainly wouldn’t have–because tolerating each other has more to do with behaviors than feelings. (I can absolute despise my colleague’s habits but still act gentlemanly towards him.)

What strikes me as helpful about this thesis is that it does suggest an evolutionary path: more kindness, more likely to avoid being killed by others in pack, more likely to survive and reproduce.  But it also suggests further how the role of religion in civilization-building could take shape: shared wonder among people who were kind to one another yielded shared ideas, shared stories, shared food, shared labor, and so on.  Groups built temples and told myths which pointed them toward the transcendent (and I think a Catholic here could even say that these myths and beliefs pointed them toward God, though in still murky ways).

Stretching the brain a little further, one could consider that the link between religion and violence is like this.  While kindness gives rise to civilization, still original sin perverts kindness.  Kindness reaches out to form communities– proto-civilizations rooted in shared work and shared wonder, primitive religion.  But primitive religion is still partial, and one group’s primitive religion conflicts with another’s when there are other goods at stake: say, land or hunting rights.  Removal of the barrier to the object of desire (following Girard’s notion of scapegoat here) amounts to a perverted act of kindness (protecting one’s friends by killing one’s enemies).  And the cycle continues until someone in human history is able to set straight the right vector of love, the fruition of kindness.


Tim Muldoon is a Catholic theologian and author of five books, and teaches at Boston College.

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