That old baseball axiom is wrong, Stefan Klein argues: Nice guys don't finish last. Klein makes his case in Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made Us Human and Why it Pays to Get Along.
Klein, author of the best-seller The Science of Happiness" and a winner of the 1998 Georg von Holtzbrinck Prize for Science Journalism, argues that altruism has been crucial to the evolution of mankind, and that it is the way to health and happiness.
Klein, who lives in Germany, discussed the topic during a recent email exchange. Here is an edited transcript.
Q: There's a lot of hate, greed and bullying on both the individual and societal levels. How does that square with the idea of the nicest winning?
A: Our life together follows somewhat more complicated rules than the law of the jungle. Egocentrics may well do better, but only in the short term. In the long run, it is mostly people and groups who act for the welfare of others as well who get ahead. For cooperation pays off. The secret for nice people to be successful is to stick together. If you carefully choose whom to cooperate with, cheaters will have a much harder time to bully or exploit you.
Q: How is it possible in a society where wealth is everything for altruism to gain an upper hand?
A: The problem is that we tend to see wealth as an end in itself. But it is just a means. The end you really aim for is a better life. And many things that make a better life do not depend on wealth. Think of fulfilling relations — or happiness. In fact, studies have convincingly shown that it's not money, but most of all caring for others that makes people happy. The more such findings become known, the more will people be willing to share.
Q: But would it be permanent?
A: Probably. Because first, people will learn from their own experience. And second, it is much easier to act upon others if you see your neighbor do so. Altruism is contagious.
Q: The idea of sharing or of doing something to help others, people do that without an expectation of reward, right? You see a kid running into the street and you instinctively grab him.
A: Exactly. In such a situation, you don't even have time to consider if helping will pay off. And in many other circumstances, people are generous even though they know they won't be rewarded. In any war, you have soldiers who deliberately sacrifice their lives to save their comrades. On a more mundane level, you naturally will tip a waiter even if you are in a foreign city and know for sure that you will never again visit this restaurant.
Q: Where do these benevolent actions come from? We can't attribute them to good parenting.
A: No. You see (children) help others as soon as they are 18 months old, even if they have never been told to do so. A year or so later, they start making little presents. And then they develop a sense of fairness. All this occurs spontaneously and in any culture, as studies showed. Humans are hard-wired to act upon others.
Q: What can people do to sharpen their altruistic tendencies?
A: Just do it. The willingness to act to help others is an attitude that you can practice until it is as natural as riding a bicycle. In time the fear of being exploited fades, and with the courage to give grows the feeling of freedom.
Q: You believe that the future belongs to the altruists.
A: Altruists have always profited from being able to exchange information. For the first time in history, people are now beginning to share across borders, because cultures and continents are growing closer together, and because knowledge is becoming the most valuable means of production. The more people around the world know about and depend on one another, the higher the benefits and the lower the risks of caring for your fellow men.