Angry students called this professor ‘disgusting.’ He’s still an optimist.

Why We Wrote This

Can you love your own group without hating everyone else? A new book, “Blueprint,” which looks at how humans form societies, joins a list of recent titles arguing for hope and optimism.

Margo Reed/The Philadelphia Inquirer/AP
Rabbi Linda Holtzman (second from r.) attends an interfaith service held in honor and solidarity with the people killed in the deadly attacks on mosques in New Zealand at Masjidullah Mosque in Philadelphia, March 15. ‘Blueprint,’ a new book by Yale Prof. Nicholas Christakis, argues that the most enduring societies are those most rooted in love.

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Three and a half years ago Yale Prof. Nicholas Christakis and his wife, Prof. Erika Christakis, a scholar of early childhood development, became embroiled in a campus controversy over offensive Halloween costumes and free speech.

A video of an angry group of students confronting Dr. Nicholas Christakis went viral, and it soon became an emblem of outrage. At the time, Dr. Christakis defended the angry students on Twitter, but he puts the maelstrom that followed on the list of the top 10 worst things that happened in his life.

Today, the evolutionary sociologist has a new book, “Blueprint,” arguing that the scientific community, most media outlets, and perhaps the majority of people have been overly obsessed with the dark side.

It is in many ways part of a wider genre of books that have tried to take on this current era’s relentless “pessimistic gaze,” as Dr. Christakis calls it. These range from Arthur C. Brooks’ new book, “Love Your Enemies” to “I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening),” from Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers.

“I kind of wanted my book to be a corrective,” he says in an interview. “I think the bright side has been denied the attention it deserves.”

More than 150 years ago, Charles Darwin grappled with a classic question about the nature of nature and the existence of God.

“There seems to me too much misery in the world,” wrote the naturalist, whose book “On the Origin of Species” was just beginning to send a jolt through 19th-century scientists and theologians both. “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the [parasitic wasp] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”

As a version of the “problem of evil,” Darwin’s observations posed a different kind of question for those working within the religious traditions of “theodicy,” suggests Nicholas Christakis, an evolutionary sociologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Usually seeing misery as a matter of free choice, theologians tried to reconcile a good and all-powerful God with evil.

The questions of his own work are actually kind of similar, says Professor Christakis, whose new book, “Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society,” surveys the ways evolution has shaped human nature and its discontents.

But his book is a “sociodicy,” he says, one that shows how the forces of evolution shaped humans into a species with deeply rooted social instincts and one that is fundamentally good.

“How do we vindicate a belief in the goodness of society despite the fact that, of course, every century is replete with horrors?” he says in an interview. “You know there’s tribalism and violence, there’s selfishness and hatred, all through the world. And nevertheless, in my view, we as human beings create a society that’s good.”

It is in many ways part of a wider genre of recent books that have tried to take on this current era’s relentless “pessimistic gaze,” as Dr. Christakis calls it.

A range of writers, from scientists to political thinkers to clergy and others, have been trying to write “correctives” in the midst of America’s oft-noted angry social divisions and growing political polarization. These range from Arthur C. Brooks’ new book, “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt” to “I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations,” from Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers, hosts of the podcast “Pantsuit Politics.”

The idea of vindicating goodness in the midst of suffering is at the heart of Dr. Christakis’ analogy between these genres, and the stakes include the subjective and profoundly human perspectives of hope and optimism as opposed to cynicism and despair.

“The benefits of the connected life must have outweighed the costs, or otherwise we wouldn’t live socially,” Dr. Christakis says. “We have been pre-wired to live in a particular way, and it’s a good way,” he says. “It’s full of lives full of love and friendship and cooperation and teaching.”

The word “optimism,” in fact, was first coined to describe – and often mock – a tradition of theodicy. Theologians argued that an all-powerful and perfectly good God could only create “the best of all possible worlds” – so, despite the evils within it, our own world must be the “optimum” of possible worlds.

Arguing for ‘the bright side’

Today the scientific community, most American media outlets, and perhaps the majority of people have been overly obsessed with the dark side of our evolutionary heritage, he says, or what some theologians might call instead a primordial “original sin.”

“So I kind of wanted my book to be a corrective,” he continues. “I think the bright side has been denied the attention it deserves.”

And while few are working to justify the ways of God or natural selection and demonstrate how society is fundamentally good, many have been analyzing that current “culture of contempt” and working to exhort Americans to pay more attention to the proverbial “better angels of our nature,” and cultivate the shared humanity and goodness that undergirds our common lives.

“Contempt is kind of a metastatic phenomenon,” Mr. Brooks, a conservative social thinker, told The Daily Signal. “When you treat somebody with contempt, you make a permanent enemy. You just can’t go back from that.”

Mr. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, offers his own practical correctives to this social illness: cultivating a love and respect for others even in the midst of profound social differences. “We don’t need to disagree less, we need to disagree better,” he said. “And that comes from ... remembering that we’re all brothers and sisters, and we need to persuade each other. And even if we have to not agree, that’s OK, too.”

In different ways, books like “Christians in the Age of Outrageby the Evangelical scholar Ed Stetzer are urging members of the subculture to step back from expressions of outrage and hostility and present a Christian witness rooted in loving others.

“Seeking kindness in an increasingly cruel landscape, or, at a time of unprecedented mobility, yearning for a sense of rootedness – well, rabbis have a two-millennium head start in dealing with all of these,” writes Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, whose new book “Mensch-Marks,” released on Tuesday, promotes a “nobility in normalcy, especially in these tumultuous times.”  

“If by sharing what I’ve learned, I can add a modicum of generosity, honesty and human connection in a world overflowing with cruelty, loneliness and deceit, then I’ll have done my job,” Rabbi Hammerman said in a statement.

In “Blueprint,” Dr. Christakis cites the work of the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who points out in his recent book “Enlightenment Now” that many don’t realize the enormous social progress of the past few centuries. In the midst of this era’s relentless pessimist gaze, Mr. Pinker argues, few focus on how the efficiencies wrought by science and technology have led to greater life expectancies, fewer wars and fewer violent deaths, and a relative global prosperity that has shrunk the overall rates of poverty and disease.

Such a pessimistic gaze can blur out bedrock strengths of the many people of goodwill who quietly hold together community ties and keep the daily rhythms of everyday life steady.

A poignancy behind the optimism

Still, there’s an underlying urgency, and even poignancy, at the heart of the optimism in Dr. Christakis’ sociodicy.

Three and a half years ago he and his wife, Erika Christakis, a scholar of early childhood development, became embroiled in a campus controversy over offensive Halloween costumes and free speech.

A video of an angry group of students confronting Dr. Christakis went viral, and it soon became an emblem of outrage, used manipulatively by many on both the right and left. “I’m sick looking at you....  You are not listening, you are disgusting,” one student told him during the two-hour exchange.

At the time, Dr. Christakis defended the students on Twitter, but he puts the confrontation and the maelstrom that followed on the list of the top 10 worst things that happened in his life. It was especially difficult for his wife, who resigned her position at Yale after the controversy.

Though not addressed, it’s part of the backdrop of “Blueprint.” As he writes, “One of the most dispiriting questions I have encountered in my own laboratory research is whether the affinity people have for their own groups – whether those groups are defined by some attribute (nationality, ethnicity, or religion) or by a social connection (friends or teammates) – must necessarily be coupled with wariness or rejection of others. Can you love your own group without hating everyone else?”

Dr. Christakis builds his sociodicy primarily through telling stories that illustrate what he calls a “social suite” of eight instincts that form the core of human societies. These include the bonds of love for partners and kin, the ability to cooperate, and the ability to form friendships and then social networks of friends.

These bonding instincts rooted in love also include a built-in tension. The “social suite” includes a profound preference for family, friends, and wider “in-groups,” which leads to an “otherization” of those not part of the group.

Yet this “in-group bias” is essential for the larger “good” society the social suite builds. “[Cooperation] is supported not only by the fact that we reliably interact with friends rather than strangers within the face-to-face networks we fashion,” he writes, “but also by the fact that we form groups whose boundaries we enforce by coming to like those within the group more than those outside of it.”

“People everywhere choose their friends and prefer their own groups,” he continues. “In turn, cooperation is a crucial predicate for social learning, one of our species’ most powerful inventions.”

In the early chapters of “Blueprint,” Dr. Christakis examines the social organization of a number of “unintentional communities,” like the survivors of shipwrecks. In some, cliques began to compete and the society disintegrated; in others cooperative instincts prevailed.

In others, he describes the formation of intentional communities, including religious groups like the Shakers, or artificial communities, like online gamers. And while aspects of the “social suite” are always at work, the kinds of societies that can emerge are not always “good,” per se.

“People often think that personality traits such as kindness are fixed,” he writes. “But our research with groups suggests something quite different: the tendency to be altruistic or exploitative may depend heavily on how the social world is organized.”

It’s an irony at the heart of the “optimistic” theodicies, too. Theologians have often argued that there can be no virtue without the reality of vice, no beauty without the facts of chaos, and that no true character can be formed in a life without tests.

All societies, from individual family units to civilizations, are shaped by a swirl of often ambivalent human instincts. But in many ways, “Blueprint” argues, the most enduring societies are those most rooted in love.

“Love is a particularly distinctive human experience,” he writes. “Love also paves the way, evolutionarily speaking, for us to feel a special connection not only to our kin, but also, ultimately, to unrelated individuals.... We form long-term, nonreproductive unions with other humans. This is exceedingly rare in the animal kingdom, but it is universal in us.”

It’s an observation at the heart of his optimism, and Dr. Christakis modifies another theological affirmation to conclude his justification of the ways of natural selection.    

“The arc of our evolutionary history is long,” he writes. “But it bends toward goodness.”

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