Nicholas Christakis on the History of Human Behavior

Michel Martin sits down with the author of “Blueprint,” Nicholas Christakis, who argues the historical arc of human behaviour bends towards goodness.

Read Transcript EXPAND

MICHEL MARTIN: Nicholas Christakis, thank you so much for talking to us.


MARTIN: So you are a physician but you’re also a sociologist who studies the way people behave in groups. What was your insight that made you connect those two?

CHRISTAKIS: I would say that being a doctor, I was actually a hospice doctor. I took care of people who were dying for many many years. There’s no way you can be a physician and not become interested in humankind. And as part of my education as a doctor and part of my ideas about the kind of scholar I wanted to be, I decided sort of early in my medical training to also study aspects of our lives as human beings that weren’t just about our bodies and how they work.

MARTIN: OK. So your latest book, “Blueprint” makes the argument that the scientific community has been overly focused on the worst of human behavior. We certainly have ample examples of that. You are saying that the bright side has been denied the attention it deserves. How did you come to that?

CHRISTAKIS: Well, I think, first of all, I’m an optimistic guy and it’s my nature. And I marvel at us, at the way humans are, at the way human beings is phenomena in a natural world. And I had become sort of upset with the way that scientists and the person on the street all too often in my view focused on the dark parts of our heritage. As you said, our propensity for violence or selfishness or tribalism or lying, and hatred. And we are also, as an animal, capable of wonderful things, capable of love, and friendship, and cooperation, and teaching. And these things must necessarily have outweighed the bad things. Look, if —

MARTIN: Why necessarily?

CHRISTAKIS: OK. Because if I came — in our ancestral environment, and I’m talking about hundreds of thousands of years, our evolution. If whenever I came near you, you killed me or you filled me with useless information, you lied to me or were mean to me in some way, or took advantage of me, then I would be better off not coming near you. I would be better off living as a solitary animal. So whatever the disadvantage is that there are in us connecting to each other, which — and there are disadvantages, the advantages must have surpassed those and because that’s how natural selection works. And so I became very very interested in those positive aspects of our humanity.

MARTIN: I was just pondering what you just said about the fact that social science has been so focused on the negative. I mean I could — we could walk out the door of this studio and find ample evidence of why they’re focused on the negative. On the other hand, if I tripped, probably somebody would help me, right?


MARTIN: So why is it you think that we’ve been so focused on the negative?

CHRISTAKIS: Well, part of that is we have been shaped, also, to pay attention to bad news, to things for a number of reasons. First of all, an argument can be made that it’s better for you to be more attentive to bad news than good news because bad news might be more likely to kill you. But more than that, I think it’s the same way that the journalists say if it bleeds, it leads. Social sciences are often that way. They study homicide. They study crime. They study “deviance”. They study all of these things that are bad, but there are also all these things that are good about us. And increasingly, in the last 10 or 20 years, not just me, many scientists have become very interested in, for instance, this notion of cooperation. Like the story you just told about tripping. It would be very odd for any other animal to do that. It turns out that other animals don’t so easily cooperate with non-kin, unrelated individuals.

MARTIN: So talk to me about your evidence. Like how did you —

CHRISTAKIS: So there are various kinds of ways to do that. So there are different kinds of things. One of the things I’m interested in is I was interested in what kind of society would human beings make if they were left on their own? And I was not the first person to wonder this question. And in an ideal kind of world, what I would love to do, in a mad scientist way, is take a group of babies and abandon them on an island and having taught them nothing and let them grow up and then see what kind of — were they nice to each other? Did they love each other? Now, of course, we can’t do that.

MARTIN: No, you can’t.

CHRISTAKIS: It’s been called the forbidden experiment, precisely for that reason. So I was trying to think, well, what is a way that we could find a proxy for such an experiment? And so I hit upon the idea of using shipwrecks. And it turns out between 1500 and 1900, there were 9,000 shipwrecks during the age of European exploration of the world. And in one case, it was even a perfect sort of natural experiment where there were two shipwreck crews on the same island at the same time in 1864, south of New Zealand, north of Antarctica. On the lower part of the island, the southern part of the island, the crew of the Grafton wreck. There were five men washed ashore. And on the northern part of the island, the crew of the Invercauld, 19 men washed ashore. And they were on the island at the same time. They didn’t see or interact with each other and they had very different fates. So the Grafton, they all survived, they worked together, they created a kind of social order that allowed them to survive whereas the crew of the Invercauld, 16 of the 19 died. Only three made it off the island.

MARTIN: And that’s because? An over-analysis?

CHRISTAKIS: Yes. So they weren’t able to create any kind of functioning society. It was a kind of every man for himself kind of environment. They even had some cannibalism. I mean the point is the argument is not that we always make a society. The argument is that if we make a society, we make a society with these good qualities.

MARTIN: So is the argument that the people who have these qualities or who have developed these qualities of cooperation, kindness, empathy toward each other are more likely to survive?

CHRISTAKIS: Yes. And I would argue —

MARTIN: Than people who are fundamentally belligerent, or like selfish —


MARTIN: — et cetera because one would think just based on the superficial top of the mind analysis, the strong do what they will, the weak do what they must. And what you’re saying is actually the cooperative, the compassionate have a better chance to survive?

CHRISTAKIS: Yes. And, in fact, I would even take it a step further. There’s a famous idea in the social science called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And it states that you first have to satisfy human’s basic needs for like food and water. And then you have to satisfy their needs for shelter and then their needs for sex and then their needs for kind of meaning and then their needs for something called self-actualization which is a kind of sense of purpose.


CHRISTAKIS: And they organize these needs in this little pyramid. And I would argue that actually, the pyramid is almost backwards. That in order to satisfy our needs for food and shelter and all these basic things that we think of as fundamental, first, you have to have friendship and cooperation. It’s those groups that are able to manifest those traits that are able to survive. And, in fact, any one of us living alone would have a very difficult time surviving. The reason we humans have had a kind of social conquest of the earth is not because of our bodies. It’s because of our culture. It’s because of the tools that we’ve invented. It’s because we work together to produce knowledge and exchange ideas and pass along useful information. I mean here is this a little nugget to think about. Many species learn. A little fish swimming in the sea can learn that if it sees the light and it swims up to the light, there will be food there. So many animals learn. Some animals learn socially. They learn by observing what another animal does. And this is very efficient. For example, if you put your hand in the fire, you pull it out, you learn fire burns me. You’ve acquired this knowledge that fire burns. But you’ve paid a price, you’ve burnt your hand. Or I can look at you and see that you’ve burnt your hand. I learn, oh, fire burns but I pay none of the price by observing you. That’s called social learning. This is rare in the animal kingdom but it happens. We even take it a step further. We teach each other things. We teach each other how to build fires. And this is exceptionally rare in the animal kingdom. This whole capacity that we have to actually teach each other things, we have been shaped by hundreds of thousands of years to have this capacity. It’s an amazing and wonderful thing that we do this. This means that you can learn stuff. If you’re born today and you take calculus in high school, you know more mathematics. If I took you back and put you 500 years ago, you would be the most intelligent mathematician on the planet, just for what you learned in high school. So all this accumulated wisdom that we humans can accumulate and we can pass on across time and also across space. I can teach someone over there calculus today is miraculous. And I think we forget it. We lose sight of some of these wonderful qualities. So we need the group, we need the collectivity, we need the wisdom that has accumulated within groups of people in order to survive.

MARTIN: OK. I credit your point and it’s a very inspiring and comforting thought. Then, why are people still so terrible?

CHRISTAKIS: OK. So the point is, that I’m not like, you know, Dr. Pangloss. It’s the best of all possible worlds. I’m well aware that these types of division, this type of hatred, this type of warfare and violence and selfishness and tribalism exists everywhere. But that’s not the argument. The argument is that over the long sweep of history, that we are getting better and better. And so the way I put it is that the arc of our evolution is long but it bends toward goodness and it does. And, in fact, it does do that. And furthermore, this long arc of prehistory, of evolution that bends towards goodness underlies a more recent historical arc of history. So in the last 2 to 400 years since the enlightenment, we’ve had all this scientific and technological inventions, and all these philosophical moves where we sort of believe in equality and these principles of democratic participation, of democracy, and equality. All of these philosophical innovations and technological innovations have shaped us to be — it is the case, be richer and the whole world is better off. Less starvation around the world, more safety, fewer wars, fewer deaths due to warfare. All of these good things are happening but they’re all happening for historical reasons in the last 2 to 400 years. And what I’m arguing is that in addition to that, deeper, more powerful, more ancient forces are at work and that we cannot escape that. Even despite all the horrors, still, there are these wonderful qualities that I think are worth foregrounding. Maybe even especially in a kind of world in which we see ascend in populism and ascend in tribalism and ascendant appeals to us versus them kind of politics which I reject.

MARTIN: I’m going to ask you in a minute to how we could perhaps speed up the pace of learning for the benefit of the common good but I don’t —

CHRISTAKIS: Yes. Well, founders —

MARTIN: Well, I just don’t want to glide past a pain point though for you, which is this incident at Yale which become this big metaphor for something else. You were head of house at Yale and there was a whole dust-up.


MARTIN: — in 2016.


MARTIN: 2015 about Halloween costumes of all things, right?


MARTIN: OK. Where the administration had put sort of forth that people should avoid Halloween costumes that are insensitive to others, specifically people of color, I think. And your wife said, “You know what, maybe kids should have more of an opportunity to learn to make mistakes and to learn from their mistakes.” This was not well perceived.


MARTIN: And there’s a video that went viral of students confronting you.



CHRISTAKIS: I do not agree with that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Then why the [expletive] —

CHRISTAKIS: Because I have a different view.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You should step down. If that is what you think about it, you should step down.


MARTIN: Is there anything in your own scholarship around — that informed the way you responded to that?

CHRISTAKIS: Yes. So, first of all, I’ll say that the essence of my wife’s argument, my wife would be offended by many of the same costumes that many people would find offensive. The of my wife’s argument was that college students at Yale, do they really want the administration telling them what to do? So it was sort of taking the side of the students to say you can form your own opinions and talk among yourselves, learn from each other. That the most important moral lessons are learned not by I tell you what is right. They’re learned by experiencing and interacting with each other. And that we — she felt, and I agreed, that the students were capable as students of Yale of actually having these conversations. And apparently, many students didn’t agree with that. Apparently, many students actually did want much more guidance from the administration about how to handle these matters. I think one of the most depressing moments of my life was when I was in that courtyard and there were students who were very upset with me and they were also upset, I think, with the ideas that I was trying — we were trying to advance. These ideas, part of them are expressed actually in this book, ideas about how human beings, for example, learn from each other. We were just talking about teaching and learning and how that’s so important for us as species or assembly, how people getting together, friends in group formations is an inherent part of our species. And at one point, a young woman says to me — she was a young African- American woman and she says to me, she goes, “You cannot understand what my life has been like because, you know, you’re an older white guy.” And I listened patiently to her. And then I answered her with an answer which I fervently believe, which is that I said that despite the fact that we’re all different from each other, I believe we are united by our common humanity. I believe that we can communicate across any divide, partly by taking advantage of these tools that we’ve been equipped to have. And it was truly one of the most depressing moments of my career. It was defending the notion, the claim, what I see as a fundamentally liberal claim, a fundamentally progressive claim, a fundamentally humanistic claim that we have a shared humanity and we are all human beings and we are united by this common humanity and the students jeered.

MARTIN: For some of the students, standpoint of the students there, I think their argument might be, if I could make it in a non-yelling fashion is that the entire structure of many of these institutions means that the white people don’t have to yell.


MARTIN: Because it’s set up so that the white people never have to yell because their preferences and desires are institutionalized.

CHRISTAKIS: These principles — and, in fact, Martin Luther King in the Mountain Top speech, the day before he’s assassinated, makes the same arguments that I’m making. Exactly the same arguments. Michael Bennet, to the football player, he talks about how important it is to be able to talk to people who are your opposite. He makes this argument in a very actually powerful way sitting in this chair. Eric Lou sitting in this chair makes the same argument that there’s a kind of civic culture that’s worth protecting. And so my argument is the same as MLK’s argument, it’s the same as Michael Bennett’s argument, it’s the same of Eric Lou’s argument. It’s probably the same as the argument you would make which is the argument that there are certain fundamental principles about organizing a good society that we want the students to own and be a part of. So these principles include reasoned debate, open expression, right of assembly, right to protest, right. We protect the right to protest in our society. We’re not a totalitarian state so we defend these principles. And my argument is the students that are coming to these wonderful universities, they can make these traditions their own. They can own these traditions. In fact, they’re using those traditions precisely to express their dissatisfaction. And they should not cut at the root of the traditions. That’s my argument.

MARTIN: I understand. How did the whole thing end?

CHRISTAKIS: Well, I mean —


CHRISTAKIS: After a couple of hours in the courtyard and then I think one of the things that happened that day, which I was well aware of because of my education, was we humans are also endowed with this capacity to suspend our individuality and become parts of a group. And part of that involves a psychological process of deindividuation where anyone who has been a part of a rave, for example, or who’s been–

MARTIN: Sporting event.

CHRISTAKIS: A sporting event.

MARTIN: Where your team is, whatever, winning and losing.

CHRISTAKIS: Yes. Or a riot or a religious experience, you know, you can have this kind of ecstatic experience, right, that people describe. These phenomena all relate to a surrendering of the self and a participation in the larger whole. And this is also part of our common humanity. We’ve been shaped to have these types — I talked about this, shaped these experiences. And I saw that happening in front of my eyes. I saw the students becoming part of a mob, actually. And they were moving as one and they were losing their powers of reason. And also, in some sense, their humanity. And that also saddened me.

MARTIN: How do we actualize what you know, what you believe you have learned about society to make this a better one?

CHRISTAKIS: In my view, you can’t read this book and not come away with a deeper and more empathetic understanding of the common humanity. For example, in the book, I review different marital systems around the world. So some societies are monogamous. Some are polygynous, one man, many women. Some are polyandrous, one woman, many men. I talk about arranged marriages, for example. Some societies, the parents pick the partners for their spouses. But in all of these societies, people love their mates. So even when the marriage is arranged, you interview couples in arranged marriages and they have no different amount of intimate affection for their partners than love-matched marriages. So in all of these societies, there’s this fundamental recurrent, wonderful quality despite all this variation that we love our mates. And to me, this is the magnificent thing that’s worth highlighting, this insight that we’re so similar to each other, regardless of all these other superficial differences. And to me, that’s miraculous, worth-attending to, and it gives us a lever for common understanding. It gives us a way forward. It gives us a way to sort of recognize that these things that we think divide us needn’t divide us, shouldn’t divide us. And it puts like a big finger on the scale on the pro-social good part of our humanity.

MARTIN: Nicholas Christakis, thank you so much for talking to us.

CHRISTAKIS: Thank you for having me, Michel.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Fraser Nelson and Martin Fletcher about the leadership race in the British Conservative party. Valerie Jarrett joins the program to discuss her new book, “Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing.” Michel Martin speaks with Nicholas Christakis, author of “Blueprint,” who argues the historical arc of human behaviour bends towards goodness.