The Path from Personal Transformation to Societal Change - Part 2

By Matthieu Ricard on January 04, 2016

In line with Darwin's emphasis on the importance of cooperation in nature, new advances in evolutionary theory allow us to envision an extended altruism that transcends the ties of family and tribe, and emphasizes the fact that human beings are essentially "SuperCooperators," to use a term coined by Martin Nowak.

Evaluating the capacities for both individual and collective transformation is important if we want to encourage the development for a more altruistic society and a better world.

Thousands of years of contemplative practice attest to the power of individual transformation. This age-old wisdom has now been confirmed by neuroscience research showing that any form of training--such as learning to read or play an instrument--induces a restructuring in the brain, at both the functional and structural levels. The same kind of restructuring occurs when we cultivate benevolence and train in developing altruistic love and compassion.

How do we go from personal transformation to societal change? Recent studies by theoreticians such as Richerson and Boyd, authors of Not by Genes Alone, stress the importance of the evolution of cultures, which is slower than individual evolution but much faster than genetic changes. Cultural evolution is cumulative, transmitted over generations by education and imitation. Cultures and individuals continue to influence each other mutually. Individuals who grow up in a new culture are different, because their new habits transform their brain through neuroplasticity, and the expression of their genes through epigenetics. These individuals contribute to the evolution of their culture and their institutions, so that this process is repeated in every generation. We can thus look forward to a welcome evolution toward more cooperative and altruistic societies.

This ideal is well within our reach. Recent research has also shown that from early childhood we are wired to be cooperative and helpful. Even very young babies recognize kindness toward others and prefer it above mistreatment. At Paul Bloom's "baby lab" at Yale University, infants 6 to 10 months old were able to recognize kind behavior and show their preference for kindness over mistreatment. Similarly, the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig found young toddlers from the age of 12 months spontaneously exhibiting behavior of mutual aid and cooperation, without teaching by adults or any prospect of a reward.

With this foundation, we can begin to promote a more altruistic society, by focusing on five points:
• We need to enhance cooperation, which includes favoring cooperative over competitive learning at school and within organizations.
• We need to aim at a sustainable harmony, which reduces inequalities and preserving our environment by doing more with less
• We need to foster a caring economics. An economics driven by selfish interests cannot remedy poverty or care for the environment.
• We need local commitment with a sense of global responsibility.
• We need to extend altruism to other life forms--the 1.3 million catalogued species that are our co-citizens in this world.

Altruism should not be relegated to the realm of noble utopian thinking maintained by a few big-hearted, naive people. On the contrary, it is a determining factor of the quality of our existence, now and to come. We must have the insight to recognize this and the audacity to proclaim it. The altruism revolution is on its way. Let us all be part of it.

Tof Path Huff Post Article

Photograph taken in Brittany, France, by the author.