Survival of the Friendliest

A few weeks of vacation have given me the time to read more deeply and widely than is my custom.  One of the books I’m part of the way through this month is Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History.  Bregman makes the counter-intuitive argument that notwithstanding our “nice guys finish last” assumptions about how the world works, the opposite is actually true. 

His thesis is that the essential human instinct is towards kindness and generosity and that moreover the ability to collaborate and cooperate are essential factors in our species’ ability to survive. 

It turns out that we’ve either often misunderstood or willfully mischaracterized Darwin. A recent Washington Post article I saw, entitled “Survival of the Friendliest,” describes the work of two scientists at Duke University, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods.  They posit that it is friendliness and cooperation that has allowed some species to thrive and others to become extinct.   They point out that dogs are the “friendly” descendants of wolves.   Wolves are on the brink of extinction whereas dogs are decidedly not.

There is a story from the Cherokee Nation that offers some important wisdom on this point:

One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, “my son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all.  One is evil.  It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is good.  It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “which wolf wins?”

The elderly Cherokee brave simply replied, “the one that you feed.”

The message in this parable is that each one of us gets to choose what kind of person we want to be.  It is not a foregone conclusion that one or the other wolf will prevail.  We get to decide which set of instincts we will nurture and develop.

Are we going to indulge our darker instincts and become wolves of anger, envy and all of the other destructive sins enumerated by the grandfather?

Or, will we feed the wolf of joy, peace, love and the other instincts leading us toward goodness?

Speaking for myself, I know that I’ve been trying very hard not to feed the wolf of anger, sorrow, regret, and self-pity, just to name a few of my vices.  That’s not easy as there is certainly enough going on these days to justify all those feelings and more.

However, the science suggests that our very survival depends on feeding the virtues of hope, serenity, kindness, empathy, and generosity.

Which wolf will you feed?

Published by Rob Radtke

President & CEO, Episcopal Relief & Development, husband, father, friend, traveler, reader, New Yorker.

8 thoughts on “Survival of the Friendliest

  1. Thank you.

    John R. Lewis was certainly an example of feeding the good wolf.

    Hopefully, we all can do our best to do the same.

    Sincerely, Susan

    Susan Longo Cowperthwaite



  2. Such a powerful, uplifting message in these parlous times! I need to feed my good wolf. Thank you, Rob!


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