Excerpt from The Kindness of Strangers by Michael E. McCullough, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Kindness of Strangers

How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code

by Michael E. McCullough

The Kindness of Strangers by Michael E. McCullough X
The Kindness of Strangers by Michael E. McCullough
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  • Published:
    Jul 2020, 368 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Grace Graham-Taylor
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About this Book

Print Excerpt


This book is about one of the great zoological wonders of the world. I'm not talking about the tears of the elephant, the smile of the dolphin, the politics of the chimpanzee, the consciousness of the octopus, the peacock's tail, the kingdom of the ants, or the wisdom of the birds or the bees or the dogs. I'm talking about a scrawny, brainy ape with the habit of helping strangers—often risking time and treasure and occasionally even life and limb to do so. It's about you and me, and how we treat everybody else. It's about the kindness of strangers.

When it comes to compassion for strangers, the human species is in a class of its own. Chimpanzees, like humans, regularly help kith and kin, but the number of chimpanzees who dive into swollen rivers to save drowning strangers, or send food to families of needy chimps in Tanzania, or perform weekend volunteer work at chimpanzee retirement homes, is zero. Year after year after year after year (do this 8 million times), no chimpanzee has ever lifted a finger to help a stranger. No less a naturalist than Charles Darwin saw the gulf between humans' and chimpanzees' capacity for caring as one of the most blindingly obvious behavioral differences between the two species:

There can be no doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense. Some apes ... might insist that they were ready to aid their fellow-apes of the same troop in many ways, to risk their lives for them, and to take charge of their orphans; but they would be forced to acknowledge that disinterested love for all living creatures, the most noble attribute of man, was quite beyond their comprehension.

Let's try to comprehend what the chimpanzees cannot. In contrast to our closest primate cousins, more than 150 people in the United States and nearly 100 in Great Britain donate a kidney to a complete stranger each year.2 The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem honors more than 27,362 non-Jews who risked their lives and their liberty to rescue Jewish people during the Holocaust.3 The Carnegie Corporation has recognized more than 10,000 ordinary Americans who knowingly put themselves in grave danger in order to rescue someone from dying. One out of every five of those Carnegie medals was awarded posthumously because the honoree had died while trying to help.4 Most heroes, of course, don't get a medal at all.

Humans also help strangers in a variety of less heroic ways. In the month after the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001, 40,000 New Yorkers lined up to donate blood.5 Each month, nearly 4 billion adults around the world help a stranger in need, 2.3 billion donate money to a charitable organization, and more than 1.6 billion perform volunteer work.6 Americans alone commit $600 billion worth of cash and volunteer labor annually to organizations that promote health, education, and human welfare.7 Two-thirds of British adults engage in a charitable activity at least once per month.

Humans' generous spirit is also revealed by the activities of their governments on behalf of their most vulnerable citizens. On average, the rich nations of the developed world commit 21 percent of their gross domestic incomes (GDIs) to domestic social spending, which includes money for retirement pensions, health insurance, unemployment insurance, family benefits, disability benefits, food subsidies, and housing support, plus an additional 5 percent of their GDIs to education.9 You might not think of domestic social spending as "generosity toward strangers": after all, we don't pay our taxes gladly. All the same, until 150 years ago, the notion that the state was responsible for meeting such a broad array of human needs didn't exist anywhere. Then it existed everywhere.

And let's not forget the $150 billion worth of official development assistance and humanitarian aid that the world's governments and nongovernmental agencies share with the world's neediest countries each year. Sure, these contributions amount to just a fraction of a percent of most donor nations' GDIs. Even so, $100 billion here, $100 billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.

Excerpted from The Kindness of Strangers by Michael E McCullough. Copyright © 2020 by Michael E McCullough. Excerpted by permission of Basic Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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