Summary and book reviews of The Kindness of Strangers by Michael McCullough

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

Book Summary

A sweeping psychological history of human goodness -- from the foundations of evolution to the modern political and social challenges humanity is now facing.

How did humans, a species of self-centered apes, come to care about others? Since Darwin, scientists have tried to answer this question using evolutionary theory. In The Kindness of Strangers, psychologist Michael McCullough shows why they have failed and offers a new explanation instead. From the moment nomadic humans first settled down until the aftermath of the Second World War, our species has confronted repeated crises that we could only survive by changing our behavior. As McCullough argues, these choices weren't enabled by an evolved moral sense, but with moral invention--driven not by evolution's dictates but by reason.

Today's challenges -- climate change, mass migration, nationalism -- are some of humanity's greatest yet. In revealing how past crises shaped the foundations of human concern, The Kindness of Strangers offers clues for how we can adapt our moral thinking to survive these challenges as well.

CHAPTER 1
A GOLDEN AGE OF COMPASSION

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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

McCullough is social scientist, not a philosopher. Although he writes with the disarming alacrity of a born optimist, The Kindness of Strangers is couched in hard, empirical fact. Beginning, suitably, at the beginning of life on earth, McCullough's book traces the origins of altruistic tendencies in various species, patiently explaining the theories of evolutionary psychologists and biologists as to why these tendencies might exist. The cumulative maxim is gloriously stark: "Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary."..continued

Full Review Members Only (613 words).

(Reviewed by Grace Graham-Taylor).

Media Reviews

Library Journal
McCullough's work can serve as a bookend for Malcolm Gladwell's Talking to Strangers. Recommended only for senior level students and researchers in anthropology and psychology curriculum.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A deliciously provocative analysis of an entirely admirable human quality.

Author Blurb Peter Singer, author of The Life You Can Save and The Most Good You Can Do
A fine achievement. McCullough expertly braids together the distinctive strands of evolutionary psychology, history, and philosophy to explore and explain a characteristic unique to our stage of development: kindness to strangers. An important book that looks at the whole of human history, and more, and thereby offers a valuable counterweight to the all-too-common view that everything is getting worse.

Author Blurb Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy
This is a controversial book, but McCullough's arguments are smart, clear, and ultimately persuasive.

Author Blurb Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now
An inspiring and engrossing new look at human goodness. Without sentimentality or glibness, and wearing his depth and erudition lightly, McCullough enlightens us on when and why we care for others.

Author Blurb Richard Wrangham, author of The Goodness Paradox
Enlightened by evocative anecdotes and well-explained theory, The Kindness of Strangers is as original as it is persuasive.

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Beyond the Book

Virtue Signaling

The Arabian babbler, a bird that displays altruistic behavior "Virtue signaling," that ubiquitous pejorative flung like so much feces across party lines by political pundits, has created a minor crisis in moral discourse. The phrase was allegedly coined by James Bartholomew in an article appearing in the right-leaning British periodical The Spectator, in which he reacted to what he saw as the rise of people who advertise their moral superiority by venting righteous outrage (arguably venting righteous outrage himself in the process). "The implication," wrote Robert Shrimsley in a follow-up article in the Financial Times, "is that the virtue-signaller does not really believe what they are saying but simply wishes to be admired as a good person."

As a political put-down, a claim of virtue ...

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