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Kindness In a Cruel World by Nigel Barber

1/07/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Kindness In a Cruel World in the USA - or Buy Kindness In a Cruel World in the UK

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pub: Prometheus Books. 415 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: $28.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59102-228-2.

check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com

‘Kindness In a Cruel World’ is further explained by the sub-title ‘The Evolution Of Altruism’ and if you haven’t figured what that is then you obviously haven’t got an act of goodwill in your body. Then again, reading this book, many people don’t. Author Nigel Barber explores why we help each other when there might not in anything in it for ourselves.

‘Might’ is the operative word here because he gives multiple examples showing other motivations taking place that you use for your own advantage. A lot of the time it can be simply being superior to other people. As this is an American book, I would have thought being paid money for donating blood wasn’t an act of altruism but just a means of being paid. Over here in the UK, the blood is given freely and those who don’t tend to scared of seeing the red stuff. With recent news that blood supplies are not as high as they are over here at the moment, please consider your own views on the subject and consider donating. After all, you might need some yourself one day.



One significant test to how generous you can be without knowing who to is to become a blood donor. This was something I ceased to be when I became diabetic but Barber spends considerable time pointing out the benefits to the community would be more if more people donated regularly.

Being good to others raises your social position but then so can beating down the opposition. The last part of the previous sentence is my own reaction. Barber gives good arguments but I often feel looking at other ways of getting the same result would balance things out.

The examination of how animals are sensitive to the needs of other members of their species shows that empathy is very prevalent. With bees, the workers commit suicide with their stings to protect their hive which is a sharp contrast to the potential breeding queens who can fight amongst themselves. Again, that is something that is also mirrored in all species as you have the range from empathic to psychopathic as well, the latter not having any regret for their actions.

I do like Barber’s attitude to organ donation at the point of death and something else you people ought to consider because basically at that point, you are hardly likely to make use of said organs and people will think well of your donation.

The examination of Catholics where men become celibate priests and women become nuns wasn’t originally done for altruism but what to do when you have too many of either sex in the population. I thought this fascinating because it wasn’t actually done to make them celibate as that came much later and from what Barber implies by those in charge who were sexually dysfunctional. I’d really love to know the Catholic priest reaction to this chapter, so if you are and read this book, let me know. I should also point out that celibacy isn’t restricted to the Catholics and prevalent in many other religions as well. As a means of population control, celibacy can keep the numbers down but so can contraception as well. The motivations then become a lot more complex because are you doing it for yourself or for your species or because your family put you there?

For parents, getting your children to do chores around the house tends to be more like bribery as they are awarded for helping than doing it purely because they want to and Barber points out that when they no longer get pocket money then they cease doing it. I suspect this is probably true the world over really so maybe parents need to consider just getting them to be helpful without payment from the start would develop better motivation. After all, your little sprogs like imitating what their parents do when young so why not work out from that, not to mention those little but rarely used words of, ‘Thank you’, in return and never take things for granted?

Barber uses a lot of known tests for his examples of human behaviour that you might have come across. He questions whether helping each other out of self-interest is true altruism when you know you’ll get something in return. My favourite observation of his is that if you have a small community where everyone knows who each other is then crime will fall drastically. In other words, get to know your neighbours. Looking after yourself and that of others is also a means for long life as well, no doubt because it reduces stress. Mind you, having a ‘them’ and ‘us’ situation, be it in job management or any kind of community tends to up stress levels.

I loved his depiction of the ultimatum game where people will reject even the smallest offer if it’s deemed too stingy even when something is better than nothing. I can see many people after buying this book trying that out as a party game although it happens for real throughout life all too often.

His discussion on being honest with your taxes is more an American than British thing but if dishonesty is shown in this then it means you’re just as likely to be dishonest is other matters as well should make you think.

Reading his chapter on conformity where people will go along with the group on major decisions has had some serious ramifications over human history. Speaking as a non-conformist, I’m not afraid to buck the trend of any group if I don’t think it’s right but a lot of people won’t rock the boat which tends to end up with dire consequences in any power struggle between two groups. Reading behind the lines of what Barber writes, I can’t help but wonder if humans need some rival groups as a means to motivate themselves to do things collectively throughout their lives. The same could be said for obeying people just because you think they’re in command. I think in any society there has to be a natural order of command or everyone could end up pulling in different directions. The real problem is in who has the right, is actually correct and who deserves to give orders?

Where it gets even more interesting is where Barber points out where altruism goes wrong. The points he makes about Catholic priests make for interesting reading and there definitely needs some reforms there. Working out which doctors are dangerous to patients is a lot more work but some of this also depends on the country you live in. Psychopathic behaviour doesn’t always reveal itself by bloody murder after all.

There is also an interesting argument about how ‘them’ and ‘us’ situations exists throughout the animal kingdom and if you use bird-tables, you can see such rivalry in our avian friends. The birds that flock to my bird-table do bicker but they seem to get their share if the food isn’t bunched too much together.

One of the things that didn’t altogether surprise me was when Barber was discussing altruism in religion is that although people lived longer within a faith, it was the atheists who tended to the more honest people. Looking back at what Barber said about groups of people conforming, I can’t help but wonder of he’s neglecting the herd instinct here and that the safety in numbers.

I’m only touching on some of the subjects I reacted most to in this book but it has made me think. I don’t think it’s answered all questions though. I mean, why would non-conformist loners have a greater sense of altruism than those in a herd who can turn on you for not belonging to their group? It sounds quite contrary to what you would expect as a group would be far more likely to turn on a thief or murderer.

This is a fascinating book on how generous people can be under all manner of situations that depend a lot on circumstances as much as anything. You will learn about how altruism affects other people as much as yourself. Whether it will make you a better person from understanding its nature will be up to the individual but I hope you can learn from its examples as something that can be shared with others so is definitely something that can be rewarding to do.

GF Willmetts

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