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Welcome to another episode of Conversations with Coleman, my guest today is Michael McCullough. Michael McCullough is a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory. He studies the functions of human behavior and emotion using the conceptual tools of evolutionary psychology and cognitive science. He's conducted research on forgiveness, revenge, gratitude, empathy, religion and morality. He's the author of Beyond Revenge The Evolution of the Forgiveness, Instinct and the Kindness of Strangers How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code, which is the focus of today's conversation.


Michael and I talk about the field of evolutionary psychology and why it's considered controversial, you talk about Richard Dawkins and the selfish gene revolution. We discuss the evolutionary roots of altruism toward strangers, we talk about the criticism that evolutionary psych is a collection of just so stories rather than actual science. We talk about the evolution of welfare spending over the past few centuries. And finally, we talk about how it's possible for human societies filled with selfish apes to become more altruistic.


So without further ado, Michael McCullough.


OK, Michael McCullough, thank you so much for coming on my podcast. Thanks for having me. Coleman. So the topic of our conversation today is the kindness of strangers, which is your new book. But before we get into that, can you give people a summary of your background and how you came to study the topics that you study?


Sure. My PhD work actually is in counseling psychology. I thought what I would spend my life doing is learning how to make give psychology a way to help people who needed help with kind of problems in living, not necessarily that had psychological disorders, but adjustment issues. We're trying to figure out what they wanted to do with their lives. I was really into Victor Frankl and existential ways of thinking about psychology and really thought that a lot of what people needed was a way to make sense of things that had happened to them in the past and figure out a kind of motivational fuel.


That would give them coherence and meaning to their lives going forward, so there's a lot of different approaches to counseling and psychotherapy, but those existentialists really got my attention.


So I thought that's what I would do, is kind of develop approaches to psychology that help people to figure out what their stories were and, you know, build paths for themselves, whether that was in their careers or their relationships or whatever.


But in that work, I increasingly got interested in my advisers research and he was interested in religion and he was interested and also in psychotherapy. But one of the things he was writing about was, was forgiveness.


And how might you help clients to forgive Harms as a way of helping them to improve marriage problems or relationship problems or, you know, get over bad stuff from their their pasts.


And in our conversations, we realized there just wasn't any research on the topic. There was hardly any research really explicitly about revenge or retaliation, but there certainly wasn't anything on forgiveness. And so I got increasingly interested in just as a basic process of human psychology, what does it take to put aside hostility? The desire to avoid the desire to see harm come to someone who's harmed you in the past, we didn't really have even a good psychological vocabulary for something like that other than sort of healing or moving on.


But it seemed to me that reconciliation was really important. Like if you can find ways to help people repair valuable relationships, even that have even those that have been damaged by something awful, that there might be real benefit on a number of levels from that.


So I started working on forgiveness straight away. You know, I did my thesis and my dissertation on these topics and just stayed with that as a topic and still work on it.


But I've got more and more into sort of the pro social side of human psychology. So studying forgiveness easily led me into an interest in cooperation and altruism. More recently, I've gotten quite interested in how it is we come to trust people and how we lose trust, which clearly is related to also forgiveness as well. So I kind of work in this little you know, I guess most of the tricks in my bag have to do with the study of prosocial behavior in the laboratory.


And to the extent that I can also sometimes out in real life. Hmm. Yeah.


And in your research and in the book, you take the perspective, at least for much of the book of evolutionary psychology. Which is a field that is at the same time very interesting and controversial. So I want to start there, because that's where you you start in the book, can you just give people a basic picture of what evolutionary psychology is and how does it differ from non evolutionary psychology?


Sure, most of psychology is built around the desire to understand cause and effect in. My part of psychology, often the way we understand cause and effect is to say there's some variable out there, there's some feature of the world, some characteristic of a social situation you're in that seems to create this effect. So someone insults you. You want to retaliate or you fume about it or you say something nasty about it or you want to harm them.


So the the general way you approach this work is to kind of assume there is. Some event in the world and some response in the world, and so what you're trying to establish to some extent is, is that in effect real? This is there this causal link. And then if you can establish that there is one, then you want to sort of say, well, what's going on in the middle to make that effect happen? So someone harms you and you feel resentment or you feel some sort of feeling or you suddenly what comes to memory or other insults from the past that make you even angry or something?


And then you want to retaliate. But to a large extent, what happens when we're thinking about that middle part? So we just sort of it's a black box. It's this impenetrable black box. It's the human head. Something's going on in there. We kind of don't know. We wave at it and we assume somehow the mind is ending up feeling vengeful because of this this harm that's just happened.


Evolutionary psychology, the way I think about it, is an insistence on not blackboxing the mind.


What you actually want to do, even when you're studying social behavior, even when you're studying interpersonal relationships, how people harm each other, help each other cooperate, undermine each other, whatever it is you're studying, talk to each other, convince each other. We don't want to blackbox what's going on in the head.


Instead, we want to assume that there are active tools and they had computational mechanisms that natural selection designed to perform specific kinds of jobs that are ultimately doing that work, of mediating the relationship between these environmental events, our social lives and the ways we behave in response to the social lives.


Evolutionary psychology is just psychology, but what we try to do is take very seriously the fact that. You don't get the mind for free, you know, it's not a solution to a problem, it's the problem for psychologists. Understanding the cognitive processes that create behavior is that's the whole game.


And and so we often just sort of say, well, there's clearly something going on, but we want to understand how information from the world is getting processed and producing behavior. And by understanding input output relationships, trying to make some inferences about the ways in which natural selection actually built our minds so we can figure out what is, in a sense, the mind for if we can figure out what it's good at doing and what it's bad at doing. Our hope is we can figure out what the functions of all those circuits are, what the functions of all these cognitive processes are.


So we're trying to link information processing, you know, the mind as a basically a collection of little computers with the theory of natural selection to figure out like, what are the cool programs in there?


What did we evolve to do psychologically and behaviorally?


So there's nothing controversial about it, really. If you take that step back and you just say, look, we're just trying to reverse engineer the mind and figure out what kind of circuits are in there.


And another way of putting it is that it's just evolutionary biology, which is uncontroversial, applied to the brain and the mind, right? That's exactly right. Yeah.


The two tools, I think, that are the most important tools for psychology, probably ever are the theory of natural selection and the computational theory of mind. Or if you like, you can call it the information processing theory of mind. The theory of natural selection tells us that what evolution produces are really cool tools that enabled populations of organisms to get important work done. And what work was that? That was work that enabled evolving individuals to increase their reproductive success.


So natural selection builds cool things. It builds design. And that applies to mines as well as the bodies, it applies to humans as well as to non-human animals. That's how we get structure. That's how we get features in the biological world, including including the human biological world that enable us to get interesting jobs done. So we're not just blobs of cytoplasm. Yeah, I think part of why it's controversial is that if you accept evolutionary psychology as a way of thinking, then you have to accept that there is such a thing as human nature.


And though human nature might allow for a vastly wider spectrum of behaviors than, say, dog nature, that there's there's nevertheless a conversation to be had about how we are programmed at birth.


Right. That that that might put limits on. Limits that are nevertheless much wider than most animals, but limits nonetheless on how you can expect human beings and therefore societies to turn out, and that becomes controversial whenever it bumps up against politics and so on and so forth. And your book touches on actually a great deal on that sort of in the later half.


But let's talk a little bit about the relationship between evolution and selfishness as a concept. We have the just the common notion of selfishness that we use to mark out people that are particularly annoying and selfish and don't reciprocate and whatnot. But can you talk about the relationship between selfishness in the conversation about the selfish gene and and evolution and misunderstandings of that are commonplace? They're absolutely the place. I think that's really important for people to get to in trying to get the whole.


Evolutionary psychology thing is that. The features of our minds and bodies we have that are reliably produced in our species that make every human being the same, that make us identical in every important way, are the are structured the way they are because. The genes that produce them, the genes that give rise genes are just recipe books, as you know, as you know, just recipe books that tell you what to put where across development to build a creature.


The genes. That had the most salutary effects in creating stuff around them. That increased those genes, rates of reproduction. Are the genes that stuck around? So, you know, at the most fundamental level, what a gene does is it. Gives a recipe for a protein, you make a protein and you a gene tells those proteins where to go and where to exist in a cell and on what schedule to end up there. Genes that end up doing those things in the right way, that are arranged in the right way and produce an effect over and over across multiple generations, end up building features around themselves like hands or eyes or a digestive system that is better than the ways they could have built these bodies.


And as a result, the bodies that are best at helping those genes to make more copies of themselves in the future are the bodies we end up with.


So the reason we have the bodies we have today in a in a word, in a little we put a little bow on it, are the bodies that have all the possible bodies that were in competition with each other, with each other, were the ones that led to the highest reproductive rates of all of the genes in the population of genes that constitute them. So genes are doing things in the world that raise their own rates of reproduction. They don't have minds.


They don't have an agenda. They're not looking forward and saying, gosh, I'd like to make more copies of myself and here's a good way to do that.


You say that they don't have a forward thinking agenda, but the way they operate through time makes it look as if they have these agendas because they build things that are cool. They build things that are effective at enabling them to push themselves out into the generations in the future. So it's in that sense that the famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins introduced in nineteen seventy six in his book, The Selfish Gene The Concept of the Selfish Gene. And so what he meant by that was very much it was just a beautiful way of illustrating that what genes are good at doing is making stuff that enables them to be better at the job of creating copies of themselves in future generations.


So fundamentally, that's what it means for genes to be selfish is that they're good at doing things that raise their rates of replication.


Yeah, and what's important and novel about that is, is that it was an important. Maybe revision is too strong a word, but an important addition to the Darwinian theory of evolution, which in Darwin's time we didn't know that there were such things as genes, and there was a view that the unit on which natural selection operates is the individual.


And that that introduce the obvious problem perhaps, and not so obvious problem, but but the problem, why aren't people simply selfish all the time? And can you talk about how the genes I view could possibly help explain that? Absolutely, yeah. I mean, this is one of the really unfortunate things that. Richard has had to live with for forty five years, forty four years. When you talk about genes is selfish and you say you kind of.


Try to alienate people from themselves a little bit just so they can see how marvelous evolution is, you present this view of their genes as having these kind of selfish effects. It tempts you to come to the conclusion that what people must be selfish all the way down if what genes do is build bodies that. Have the effect of causing the genes to have higher reproductive success than it must build individuals who are just out there trying to grab every bit of food they can and knocking rivals out of the way and poisoning their enemies and always in their stepfathers or whatever it is they're doing.


But that's a misleading conclusion to draw, because what actually all that means is of the possible infinity of behaviors.


You might engage in the behaviors that we'll have on the menu as things we will be inclined to do are things that over the long haul of a full life. End up leading to higher reproductive success.


So what we can do is start to think like economists, you know, once we say people will have minds that incline them to do things that make them better off, make them better off, not in the game of reproductive success, then you can start to say, well.


The gains of trade are something that make people better off, you don't have to just simply be devoted to trying to kill everybody.


You can say, hmm, there it seems like an organism might be better off if it could figure out how to make things that other individuals wanted and buy things for other individuals that they don't feel like making themselves.


Then you can say, well, it seems like these creatures could understand trade or you could make organisms that could understand reciprocity, or you could make organisms that care about their loved ones and their families. And in fact, natural selection has done that a lot. It's built design into lots of organisms that cause them to care about their offspring. And that's that seems sort of obvious, like, well, of course, every animal cares about its offspring, but you have to build that in.


You have to build that kind of concern for others into the bodies and minds of these evolving creatures.


So just as a fundamental step. You're going to have individuals that care for their offspring, you have to build in instincts and you can see where those instincts could be built by selfish genes. Selfish genes that caused organisms to take concern for their children would be genes that are better off. So they build. Care, they build concern, they create parental love, so almost as soon as your social once is, as soon as you are an organism that produces young, that require a lot of care, you're going to get unselfishness as a product of these selfish genes.


Yeah, and the key link there is that the gene inside me, you know, the gene inside me benefits. If it makes me the type of person that cares about my sister and my children, if I had any, because there's likely to be a copy of that same gene in them. Yeah, that's right.


And this is where the genes stay selfish.


One of the great insights, and this is really what Dawkins has motivated him to write, The Selfish Gene, he'd come across a couple of early papers by I mean, not so early. It was just a couple of few years before Dawkins was working on the book, but by a biologist named Bill Hamilton, who's gone now. But what Hamilton had to say was, imagine you're a GM, you don't care what individuals gonads you're locked in, it doesn't matter.


What matters to you is how many copies you can get out into the world. And the more copies of yourself you can manage to get out into the world, the more copies there will be of you in the world and they will have the same propensities you do. So Hamilton's genius was to say there aren't just copy in Mike McCullough. There aren't just copies of of Mike McCullough's genes and Mike McCullough. There are copies of Mike's McCullough's genes and his offspring or his siblings or his cousins or second cousins.


So Mike McCullough might have a gene that causes him to behave in a way that benefits those other individuals at a cost to Mike McCullough.


But in so doing, if it's a really valuable benefit to those other individuals, even if really costly to Mike, that gene can still go up in frequency or in or in its representation in the population.


If by helping those other individuals who bear the genes at the end of the generation, there are more copies out there. So a rare gene in me is likely to be 50 50, likely to be in one of my my siblings. So if I'm able to do something really valuable for that sibling, even if it's at a cost to me at the end of us all doing our reproducing, you know, having all of our kids, there may be more copies of that gene in the world.


And if so, that's a gene that's on the move and that's a gene that's got a future. And what the future it will have is motivating individuals to provide benefits to their relatives, even if it comes at a cost to them. And that's a gene that can take over the population so the gene doesn't care whose body it's in.


And that was one of the amazing insights that we only got in the nineteen sixties. I mean, that's not that long ago, but that's the evolution of care like that. That's that's the one that's the first place we see individuals really beginning to care about. We get biological design, psychology, if you like that that enables individuals to take a concern for the welfare of other individuals. It's through relatedness.


So the the dawkins' selfish gene innovation helps explain why we why it's a human universal to be kind towards your family and towards your offspring.


But then there's this separate question, which is really the focus of your book, which is why would primates such as ourselves so constructed be kind to strangers? Why why do I very occasionally in New York, when I'm in the mood, give a dollar to the person begging when that person is clearly not my family? Why do people routinely donate to charity, donate to charities that are working in places that are so far away that they're almost abstractions? And you you sort of start out by looking at some of the explanations within evolutionary psychology.


And there are two that you highlight and sort of explain as both inadequate, but they're useful to think about just to grab on to the evolutionary psychological way of thinking. And those are the stranger adaption ist model and the blessed mistake model. So could you explain those two?


Yeah, yeah. I mean, there's there's generally a lot of social scientists and biologists are interested in where niceness comes from. You know, clearly we've got this kinship thing going on, this this Hamilton thing that I talked about. We've got some some other theorists.


It's all to say this is a sociality is a huge part of evolutionary biology. And so evolutionary social scientists have taken an interest in it as well. And in general, they've fallen into two schools to explain why do we care about strangers? Why do we why do we tip in restaurants? We'll never visit again when we go to a conference. And we're going to be going to a cafe where we'll never benefit from having helped somebody. Why do we leave a tip?


Why do we do all these things toward strangers that we seem to get no benefit from? And there's as I size it up, there's two camps. There are groups of of theorists who say, no, no, no, we do. We have evolved to take an interest in the welfare of strangers. And we can just look back into the history of human demography and look at how groups were structured. And we can see ways in which there were strangers in our midst that would have generated a payoff to us to have a genuine, abiding intrinsic care for.


So I call them stranger adaptationists. Well, I'll move on to the second one is second group of people, and Dawkins is really at the vanguard of them. I refer to as Blessed Moustakas, and this is a term I actually got from Dawkins in one of his latter more recent books. He was trying to give people a sense for why we do care about strangers, and he compared it to something like sexual desire, where he says sexual desire clearly exists for the purpose of facilitating reproduction.


But today we can know that fact and know that we don't want to have children. And nevertheless, we we still continue to have a desire to have sex and to have a mate. So even though the passion is still there, we don't necessarily need to it can it can motivate behavior in other situations in which there's no hope of it fulfilling its end goal, which is to cause us to have to have offspring. So he says that we can have the same concern for others around us.


Even if there's no chance of us getting a benefit. From helping them, because our the. Psychology that motivates us to care about others evolved in a world in which caring for others ended up meaning caring for your friends and your family, because another the people that you would encounter that you lived among were people who cared about you. And so any random person you just grabbed out of the universe of people you knew and decided to help was going to be somebody you knew.


So why would natural selection bother? Making that system any smarter than that, you know, you can imagine in a world where you essentially know everybody, you know, everybody's in your contact list that you're ever going to run across, natural selection could just say like a any when you come across, help them. So to help people today. Is a blessed mistake. It's a lovely thing, it makes the world a better place, but we're not doing it because we care about the welfare of strangers.


We're doing it because our minds have this rule of thumb that says if you see it and it's needy, help it, because in a world in which that sentiment involved, that would make the individual better off. So I have some reasons to think that that is a an incomplete explanation as well, but those are the two kind of alternatives on offer that I was trying to steer between. I didn't find either of them very completely satisfying. So in some ways, my book is really about trying to steer a different way forward to understand.


The book started out as the provisional title is Why We Don't Give a Damn? Because I didn't realize how fun it would be to write about why we do give a damn, but ultimately it's why we give a damn about strangers. And I don't think either of those to sort of alternatives really get the job done.


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So let's move on. I think we could we could dwell more on evolutionary psychology and there is actually one thing I do want to dwell about, which is.


As you said, ultimately, probably the majority of your book is is not about really about evolutionary psych, but about the historical and sociological and cultural and economic reasons why we've grown so much more generous over the past several hundred years, as measured by things like. How much what percentage of GDP goes to social spending and what not? But I do want to address one common critique of evolutionary psychology before we get there, which is the notion that. Evolutionary psychologists are telling just so stories.


That there. Really working backward from a conclusion, and they're working backward from their baseline hypothesis, which is that. Our minds are shaped by evolution, and you can see the the imprint of evolution in our behavior today and they just take that for granted. And then whatever behavior they see today, empirically, they tell a convenient story about why that would have made sense evolutionarily. So it's not really a science, it's not making predictions and so on.


So I'm sure you've heard that, do you? What's your reply to that?


Sure. I mean, that's this is a really common critique. And I think there was a time in which it was a fair critique. In fact, I think today still that's a fair critique to make about some of evolutionary psychology. Like any field, the quality of the work is not uniform. Like any field. There are people who are doing top quality work and there are people whose, you know, maybe, maybe is not their work is not top quality.


So like in any field or any endeavor of human life, it's if you enjoy dealing in black and white blanket statements, then you can do the same thing in psych.


But I think more and more that that critique is an unfair and inaccurate one because evolutionary psychologists have learned.


For any behavior, you see. You have to realize that there is more than one evolutionary hypothesis for it. So you there could be a number of reasons that natural selection might have put together a particular psychological system, so the goal is generally not to tell a just so story, but it's to test a number of possible stories. And as we do in science in general, try to knock down the bad ones and then be left with the ones that are good.


So it's a it's an effort to rule out bad ideas, just like one would do in any field of science. The difference, I think, is what we want to see. And increasingly what we are seeing is forward looking predictive power where we can predict new phenomena on the basis of basic evolutionary theorizing. So I think a great example. It's just it's one of my favorite examples of bringing the predictive power of natural selection thinking to understanding human behavior actually goes back to kinship and figuring out how it is we come to learn who our siblings are.


This is work by one of my friends and former colleagues, Deborah Lieberman. The question was, how do we figure out who our siblings are and can say on one hand what a dumb question, people tell us who our brothers and sisters are. You live with them. But again, you don't get anything for free psychologically. Something had to create the system that we use. And what what Lieberman figured out is it may be that we use the amount of time we live with somebody is offspring as children.


And there's a little odometer in our heads that just counts the number of days that we live under the same roof with somebody and our minds just count up days. And that's a pretty good heuristic you might use.


But for older siblings, there's another thing you could use, which is whether you saw your mom care for the younger child. OK, so imagine you're an older sibling, you see your mom breastfeed your your dumb little brother, and you can use this cue to lock in a sense like, yep, that's my sibling. What Lieberman found and I think this is just genius. You've got those two cues available.


Older siblings can see mom caring for younger, younger, can't see Mom caring for older. Is there because the age gap is different?


She wanted to know how long would you have to live with an older sibling in order to feel the same care and love for them that your older sibling would feel for you, given the fact that your older sibling had this really rock solid cue because they saw Mom taking care of you. Mom's taking care of that one that I know. That's my mom and that's probably my sibling. Turns out for that younger sibling, 15 years. And you get to the same amount of concern that the older sibling has for the younger sibling.


Why is 15 years good?


Because that's about the amount of time that children and the environment we grew up with would have been under the same roof with an older sibling before that older sibling took off and started trying to make a way for itself, for himself or herself. So 15 years, once you get to 15 years of living together, that's when that fellow feeling, that feeling of commitment and brotherly sisterly love sort of reaches its its peak and older siblings get there right away.


So the entire ecology of our lives together as children. Tells us that. 15 years is a kind of a magic number, and by the time you get to 15 years, that's that's where 15 years of living together is, where sort of fraternal love reaches its peak. That's a powerful prediction that no one has ever made ever thought to make about how we come to care about our brothers and sisters. And there it is, first principles, knowing what we know about.


What human life was like before we were modern, before we were living in cities, knowing that natural selection makes good stuff that does its job right, that it doesn't like us to make mistakes, it doesn't want you treating complete strangers like siblings. And, you know, these are discoveries no one had even thought to ask the questions about and wouldn't have if they hadn't been thinking about the mind as this tool designed by natural selection to get jobs done.


So you so you work with what? You know, we know a lot about what our human history was like. We know that we get certain jobs done. And so an evolutionary psychologist says, like, let's figure out how it works, nobble predictions. Yep.


So I want to move on now from evolutionary psychology. And because I think one of the the kind of motivation for the structure of your book is that evolutionary psychology, it tells us what human beings have in common and why we have it in common and what separates us from other animals psychologically in terms of our broad tendencies. What it doesn't what it can't by definition, tell us is why societies have changed psychologically over short periods of time. Why is the the typical American today is a very different person than the typical American in seventeen fifty and Evo psych operating on long time lines, probably can't tell us very much about why that is.


We have to look to other disciplines like history and sociology and and so on and so forth. And the second half of your book is spent explaining this puzzle, the sort of long term historical trend line towards greater kindness towards strangers, where right now we're spending something like 20 percent of GDP on social spending, up from virtually zero. A few hundred years ago, and you go even further back, so can you sort of sketch in broad historical terms what the evolution of kindness has been like, not on the evolutionary time scale.


Yeah, yeah, it is a strange thing to imagine a world in which we didn't have a social safety net in which the only insurance policies you had were family and friends and, you know, whatever fat you could store on your bodies for when when you were going to be hungry. But but that's the state of nature. The state of nature is friends, family, in fact.


So what seems to have happened as humans became sedentary and we stopped living as egalitarian. Hunter gatherers is that we find ourselves in settling down in cities that become larger and larger and have more and more people, and our economic life becomes more and more specialized. And we find ourselves in cities in which it really becomes possible through the accumulation of bad luck to end up with very bad luck. Indeed, over the course of multiple generations, if you have a bad harvest, you end up with a bad piece of land or you have the cattle die.


That's bad luck that could reverberate for centuries through your lineage. Likewise, if you have good luck, then you're going to pass on more good luck to your offspring.


So we see the see kind of an explosion of inequality in these early as these earliest city states in the archaic world.


This was the first time anyone thought to care about the welfare of complete strangers. Well, they thought to care about them before that, but the way they thought to care for complete strangers was just killing them. Our relationship to absolute strangers, we did have a relationship to them and in the world. But that was the relationship of like, let's kill as many of them as possible as quickly as possible. We move into a period of indifference once we start to settle in the cities where we can coexist with people we don't care about.


But pretty much right away, this starts to the suffering of strangers, starts to generate second order problems, cities are not fun if there are people dying in the streets of exposure or disease, cities are not fun if people are walking around not able to meet their own daily caloric needs.


And so what we have left over our legal codes from the ancient cities of Sumeria and Mesopotamia, telling us that the poor were regarded as requiring, needing a special kind of consideration just to prevent vast amounts of exploitation.


So. The idea that poverty creates second order problems. I think is the fundamental motivating engine, conceptual engine for why societies began to take an interest in the welfare of complete strangers, it's because they're here. They're here with us. We've got to figure out what to do about this because of the Second-order problems. So I see human history over about ten thousand years being a history of looking at second order problems on a variety of scales or in a variety of denominations and asking.


What are you how do we want to corporately cope with these second order problems, some of the second order problems are really material. They're really basic problems like epidemics, not fun. It's bad for morale to see people dying in the streets. It's bad for business. Very, very material second order problems. But then what I think I've seen through history as well is that some of the second problems become problems of meaning or ethics. Like, I just don't like seeing what's happening here.


It's violating certain ethical or spiritual or moral principles I have. So how do I want to deal with those second order problems as well? So to me, I see an invented species.


Where people is strangers are stuck with strangers, generating consequences for them and then trying to figure out how best to handle those second order consequences in the context of your book.


I found one of the passages really interesting about the Golden Rule. And when we're thinking on such long timescales, going back to hunter gatherers all the way up to today. It becomes interesting to notice that several different societies came up with some version of the Golden Rule within the same, you know, two to five hundred year period, and then you begin to wonder whether there were structural the structural changes that were going on around the world in agricultural societies at that time didn't lend themselves to such a rule.


So can you talk about that a little bit? Sure, it's a it's the oddest thing. I mean, you see the notion of. You know, something like. That which is evil to you, do not. Visit on others, do unto others as you would have them do unto you more in the positive frame popping up in.


Judaism and Yellow Valley, Chinese religion and the Indus Valley, Indic religion comes up in Buddhism and Confucianism, later in Christianity and Islam, obviously. But this golden rule, it just appears seemingly out of nowhere. And all of these places you have to I mean, you have to assume they were all getting it from the same source. But that's lost to time if that's the case. Instead, what we're left with is that perhaps there were, as societies became again ever larger and war became ever more effective and more nasty on a larger scale, people started to ask really deep ethical questions about what the meaning of life was.


And it looks like the solution they came to in all of these societies was that meaningful life or spiritual life or a life of fulfillment needed to be a life of compassion. The assumption is that they wouldn't have come to this conclusion if it hadn't been for wars having become so bloody and leaving so many bodies and having a sense that just the existing religious systems couldn't couldn't explain this. So you do you get the evolution of compassion, the emergence of compassion as a spiritual mandate, really for the first time.


I mean, it's weird to think like people have always been religious, but the idea that the essence of religion was compassion like that would have sounded really weird prior to the Axial Age. But it starts now. We we hear it and it sounds just it sounds second nature. It's hard to. You know, imagine a world religion that would try to distance itself from that idea, but it was an innovation that came from somewhere, there was a time in which that was an absurd thing to say.


And now we just we just it's hard to imagine otherwise. That's the golden rule coming at seemingly coming out of nowhere.


So as you move on in the book, you spend a good deal of time talking about the past, say, three hundred years. And the evolution of kindness to strangers as manifested in the welfare state, so can you tell that story and sort of connect it to the broader themes of this conversation? Yeah, yeah. The welfare state is something you start to see. You see a hint of this in the writings of the late 18th century and then coming through, I think three thinkers, Rousseau, Kant, and Adam Smith, who all gave rise to the idea that there was a fundamental human dignity that even the poor had.


I mean, this is a collection of ideas that I think get put together into a notion of distributive justice about the turning of the the end of the seventeen hundred beginning of the eighteen hundreds.


There's a fundamental human dignity, and as a result of that, we owe a certain duty to each other to be to treat each other in an ethical way, it's can't.


From Smith, we get the idea that everyone has worth everyone has a genius and markets are great, but they require some regulation and a couple of really sensitive tender areas of human life which are education and and actually the job market. And then from Rousseau, you get this notion of inequality, which does as as an empirical fact seem to have. We can see it cropping up in the very first sedentary societies. And his notion that that inequality is is something that as a kind of multigenerational dynamic behind it, these all get put into an idea of distributive justice, which becomes really something an Okura around the time of the French Revolution.


But this fundamental human dignity idea sticks and as that idea makes its way. Through a lot of 19th century mines, we reached the end of the 19th century, people are getting rich, they're starting to get rich, life is starting to get a lot better as we enter the industrial age. Welfare is increasing, wages are increasing. People are leaving the countryside in droves for the opportunity to work in the dark satanic mills of the industrial age, because that's how you get comfortable.


That's how you develop a life for yourself, where you can feed a family and be comfortable. It's leaving the country for the places where the jobs are. So by the second half of the 19th century, what England, Germany, Austria, what Poland, what the large and the large industry engines of industry were realizing is that we've got all these folks here. If we can create some basic since we've pulled them away from their families, which is what they essentially relied upon as a kind of insurance policies, their social insurance policies, we've all moved here into the cities if if we can make some provisions for them so that if they're too sick to work, they're not going to end up out on the streets or they're too old to work or they're too disabled to work, if we can begin to put some social insurance is in place to hedge people against these slings and arrows of life, then we can prevent more second order problems.


We can prevent the situation where no one has, as these folks have got another 20 years of life to live, but they don't have any money to live it with. So life is good. It becomes possible to tax because prosperity is high. And what you see happening in a lot of different countries around the same amount of time. Eighteen nineties to the nineteen teens is the addition of social insurances. The first one showing up, Germany and Poland, disability insurance for worker's illness, insurance for workers.


And gradually these innovations just diffuse through 20 30 nations really quickly, like in a matter of decades. And every society in Western Europe has a program for disability insurance or illness insurance or old age pensions. And so what we see is through a matter of just cultural copying, I think all of these societies sort of realising this is a way to insure the workforce stays healthy and intact and we're not leaving people destitute just because they died ten years before the actuarial tables said they ought to die.


So the welfare state starts with these basic social insurances. We get to World War One, the Great Depression. This is seen as an opportunity to extend those programs even further. And so all through Europe, obviously, North America as well, and all the English speaking countries. See an accumulation and the programs just expand universal education. There's not any place in the world now where you wouldn't imagine that being something you'd want as a social good, everyone has it now, some sort of Social Security program, old age pensions, they're just everywhere now.


And essentially every possible benefit that we can imagine providing as a way of establishing a kind of basic level of wellness or welfare somebody has experimented with and tried to put in place.


And following World War Two, it was possible to raise so much income for the war effort that tax rates stayed very high for a long time. And through into the Johnson administration, we were able to continue to to experiment with ways to Social Security and other things to try to keep people out of poverty. So it's creepy in this kind of secular way and gone from, as you say, from a time when we know the percent of GDP spent on social spending was zero to a place now where it's 20 plus percent everywhere, including in the United States.


So this will be my my final question.


But I think people listening to this might feel that there's a kind of schizophrenia to the conversation because, you know, the whole first half is spent talking about evolutionary psychology and the way in which we we didn't really dwell on this, but the way in which it limits our capacity for empathy and for kindness to strangers where, yes, however we get there, it's possible to feel empathy for people. But we should bet very much against the possibility of being able to raise a whole generation to care just as much about strangers about than they do themselves.


Just the mere fact that I can be selfish enough to do this podcast that I enjoy, rather than spending every moment of my time figuring out how to help others. You know, there's just this casual level of selfishness and attention on ourselves that you point out in the book that we're not even aware of. And we take for granted that we don't realize how how far we are from being the picture of a saint or someone who is truly caring about others.


And that's just baked into our psychology. There's there's really no fundamentally there's no reinventing ourselves that's not on the menu. But at the same time, you see this almost inexorable trend throughout history towards caring more and more about strangers. So how do you resolve those two facts? Yeah, I actually don't think empathy's done a whole lot of work through history of bringing us to where we are now. I mean, there are we have emotions. We have care.


We have concern. We pity others. We feel sorry.


I don't think those kinds of human warm sentiments have driven a lot of the action we've seen over the past five hundred years. I think the evolutionary endowments that have done the work for us are the endowments that allow us to look around our lives and see things we don't like. I mean, this is it's so fundamental. It almost sounds stupid to even put words to it. But I really do think these are the instincts that have done the work. You look around you, you see conditions you don't like.


And we've all we do this all the time and then we say, well, what are our options for addressing these issues? What are we can find our incentives. And then, like many animals can do, we can see pathways to that will allow us to track those incentives and obtain them for human beings.


These are what we've done is we've tried to find our incentives at the societal level so great it would be better for business, would be make for a more competitive country if we had a healthy workforce rather than a destitute workforce. That's a problem. Let's have a conversation about how we want to deal with that. So what I actually see through history is people using reason, seeing conditions that they don't like finding through science, perhaps. If certain conditions are bad for business, they're bad for flourishing, they cut against certain ethical principles we value and then getting together for debate and argument, actually, what should the tax rate be?


What's the right tax rate? Which of these programs work? Which of them create more problems than they solve? Which of them disincentivize all the wrong things like these are arguments. And we've as I look through the long course of history, it's not people saying like, let's love one another. Let's remember that all you need is love or something to solve problems. It's been fine. OK, what's the right amount at which to do this? What's the right amount we should spend on this?


Does this thing work or not? So it's through only through vigorous reasoning and argumentation, I think, to make a dent in most of these social problems. Now, how much should we be sending to developing countries around the world? Isn't that money just going to end up in the hands of dictators? Isn't that money just going to be converted into bribes and it's not going to improve anybody's lives at all? Like these are real arguments. And I think this is where the engine of history has been in helping us to become more compassionate as as a society.


As a world.


Mm hmm. Yeah. And that's one thing that's sometimes overlooked when talking about Evo psych is that reason is one of the things that we are built to be capable of.


That's right, we built a reason and we reason in groups that's we talk a lot about the biases and myopia is that humans have in their decision making and we do what a lot of those myopia is. And biases fall away when you have to argue your case, among other people, because the other people are looking at your case and saying, well, I assume that what this guy is going to say is stupid. So let me just hear it through and let me let me see the way find the flaws.


Let me do him the favor of finding the flaws in his reasoning. So we engage in conjecture and refutation. And that's what sharpens arguments. You know, if I just walk around with arguments in my head, they're bound to be terrible arguments because I can't argue well with myself. But when we reason together, we can end up with increasingly better arguments. So I think that's what's been happening.


And we have we have instincts for this. This doesn't come naturally either. We evolved to try to figure out collective problems together. Which way did the deer go know? Let's look at the tracks and use our expertise and try to figure it out. Everyone can have really different ideas about the answer to that. But the end of the day, everybody wants to find the deer. Everybody wants to be correct. So through argument, you can get rid of the bad arguments and hopefully leave the good ones standing on that optimistic note.


Thank you so much, Michael McCullough. The book is The Kindness of Strangers, and we only really scratched the surface of it in this conversation. So I encourage you to all go out and buy it and get beneath the surface. But it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Can you point listeners in the direction of any online home that you have or if not, perhaps a Twitter handle?


Sure. Emmi, underscore McCulloh on Twitter and I'm on the UCSD website. That's an easy place to find me in the Department of Psychology.


And I also blog at Social Science, Evolving Dotcom. So those are probably the best three places to interact with me online.


Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Michael. Thanks, Golman. It was really great talking with you.