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If people are naturally kind, why is there so much cruelty?

Unthinkable: Evolutionary biology suggests our natural instinct is to be nice

Are humans naturally inclined towards cruelty or kindness? The question has perplexed philosophers and scientists for centuries.

The Chinese thinker Mencius was one of the earliest proponents of the “human nature is good” theory, while Jean-Jacques Rousseau made the case forcefully during the Enlightenment. More recently, psychologists and evolutionary biologists point to evidence of kindness “hard wired” in toddlers. Sharing and collaboration seem to be instinctive from an early age.

But settling the argument is another matter, and proving that altruism has an evolutionary advantage in a world driven by "survival of the fittest" has remained elusive. In the case of American geneticist George Price (1922-1975), the search contributed to a spiral into depression. Dispirited at the failure to find a scientific cause for kindness, he gave away all his possessions and spent his last years in destitution.

Toland's sense of curiosity was fuelled by some personal experiences. He had a pulmonary embolism at the age of 29

For Dubliner Éamonn Toland, the question first surfaced while he was at university in Oxford. “Studying American history, I was blown away by the fact that the people who wrote the declaration of independence owned slaves… I went back to the excuses they told themselves, the things they published, and it was terrifying because you realise these people are not that different from ourselves.”


America at the time had a bill of rights and free speech and yet lived “with such an obvious evil… I have been thinking about this for 30 years.”

Toland works as a consultant in the gambling industry – he was formerly president of Paddy Power’s North America operations – so you may question his qualifications on the subject. But his sincerity is undeniable, as is his determination to crack the problem. He spent several years firing off unsolicited emails to top academics, querying research findings, and immersing himself in altruism-related literature. The product of his deliberations is The Pursuit of Kindness, published this week by Liberties Press.

Toland’s sense of curiosity was fuelled by some personal experiences. He had a pulmonary embolism at the age of 29 and, while recovering in a hospital in London over Christmas, saw “the best and worst of human nature” – both the selflessness of NHS workers but also “granny dumping” – the abandonment of elderly family relatives in hospitals, something that has been shown to rise during holiday periods.

“I got fascinated by the lies and excuses we told ourselves to justify cruel behaviour which is clearly at odds with our fundamental nature.”

In the book, he explores how societies set different moral norms from the time homo sapiens first emerged around 300,000 years ago. He broadly concurs with Dutch historian Rutger Bregman who says humans were by default co-operative and friendly until nomadic hunter-gatherers settled down, inventing among other things private property.

Bregman, in his recent book Humankind, dates the demise of what he calls "Homo Puppy" to about 10,000 years ago. Toland puts it a few thousand years earlier, noting that the oldest evidence of mass-scale warfare is a 13,000-year-old grave in the Jebel Sahaba region of Sudan.

“A couple of things happened 12 or 15,000 years ago.” Toland says. “One of the things was our climate became more stable and the other was the population started to grow… and it wasn’t broadly dispersed. It was focused on places with a lot of resources.

“The difference is, up until this point, to the extent that we had a dark side it would have been latent; there wouldn’t have been a reason to be hostile to other people because they weren’t a threat or a challenge.” Now there was “more of an incentive” to be ruthless as “survival instincts kick in”.

Inevitably, there is a degree of speculation – no one can travel back in time to see just how our ancestors lived. But Toland sees evidence of innate sociability today. “If you look at social media, we have a moral instinct to right wrongs but when it’s corrupted it can be a way of persecuting others, like witch hunts… There’s a huge amount of insight that says our moral code was adapted in small bands where you didn’t have a moral dilemma that wasn’t personal, that wasn’t face-to-face.”

He says “the crucial thing to me is that we need a story” to justify cruelty, and he builds on the argument with historical examples from the Crusades to the Holocaust. “We are not monsters, and in order to circumvent our kindness instinct we have to tell a story to ourselves to do awful things.”

Does modern society make us cruel? “In some way modern society is an attempt to come up with solutions to complexity,” Toland replies. Shared concepts of justice and a “rule of law” help to keep us in line, he says, although maintaining kindness today “takes substantial cognitive effort in order to check our own biases”.

I find it incredibly frustrating Ireland taxes gambling but has no regulator for gambling and they have dragged their feet on it for years

The instinct to err on the side of compassion is diminished in a world where relationships are less reciprocal. Vulture funds can be ruthless in extracting rent safe in the knowledge they’ll never have to meet their tenants. Anonymous tweeters can join pile-ons under the assumption that they will never need the mercy of others.

And what about the gambling industry?

Toland admits that some bookmakers engage in sharp practices, including the promotion of in-shop betting machines that have been linked to gambling addiction. While betting companies are doing more to tackle problem-gambling, they “can only see what’s in front of them” and effective regulation is needed to make sure addicts don’t just move from one platform to another, he says. “I find it incredibly frustrating Ireland taxes gambling but has no regulator for gambling and they have dragged their feet on it for years.”

As to whether the gambling industry is inherently exploitative, he replies with a story of his own. “My father was a barman in Dublin Airport and he got a tip from Vincent O’Brien back in ’68 about a horse called Sir Ivor who won the Epsom Derby. And he put literally all of his money on to win the double, which bought a piano for my sister… To me gambling is a lot like alcohol. Millions of people can have a bit and have fun with it; there are certain people who shouldn’t go near it.”

Toland grew up in Whitehall – “I went to Bertie Ahern’s secondary school and Theresa May’s college” – and now lives in New York. In his acknowledgments for the book, he thanks the many American editors who turned it down, including “the one who said he had had enough of consultants with world-changing visions”.

Ah! If only it could change the world. Toland might not be the first to plough this furrow but the case he makes is utterly convincing. The way he tells it, he is just following the science and, with echoes of cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, encourages us to resist our negativity bias.

“I think we need a new story or maybe revive an old story, which is to start with the realisation that we are naturally predisposed to kindness and collaboration. That’s who we are.”

The Pursuit of Kindness by Éamonn Toland is published by Liberties Press