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Bare BonesBiology 080-The Golden Rule

Last time on Bare Bones Biology, I suggested that our best contribution to the future would be to live our ideals, beginning with the Golden Rule. I’m assuming our ideals are generally similar and involve having the “good life.” Buddhists say “happiness.”

These ideas are similar, and if they parallel your goals or wishes, then all the major religions have the same basic formula for achieving them. Karen Armstrong phrases it well in the first sentence of her Charter for Compassion that was created by consortium of scholars representing all the major religions. “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.”

So all these religions that are mostly more than 2000 years old, they all have a very similar idea of the good life. Probably you already knew that, but maybe you are wondering, what that has to do with biology?

Biology is the study of life and living things. Living things can be as small as one-celled bacteria or as enormous as the whole living ecosystem. Or they can be us, you and me. We are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, and we belong to the group called animals (biologically, animals can be defined as multicellular living things that are capable of moving around to fulfill their needs such as food, water, housing and so on). We are among the group known as social animals. All social animals have inherited characteristics that are a part of their genetically programmed nature. Most social animals are also capable of learning, and in our case we have a spectacular capacity to learn and to create and to adapt. Our learning capacity is so strong that we sometimes forget that our deepest natural needs are genetically programmed. These qualities are not learned, but we can learn how to use them well or poorly.

I believe the need to give and receive compassion is one of these inherited human qualities, that exists deep in our biological makeup and drives us instinctually, way below the level of conscious thought, whether or not we are aware of it. I don’t know of any way to test this belief scientifically, but it’s not an original idea. Excellent books have been written about compassion in social organisms, and humans are very social. We live and work together and grow and create for the common good, and because we can work together so well, we are a powerful influence on the earth. The very fact that the vast majority of successful human cultures have core beliefs that center around compassion, or caring for one another, supports the idea that this quality is inborn. And surely it must be, right? Otherwise our societies would never have held together, as they have done, in the face of all sorts of obstacles, including other inborn traits such as a tendency to be competitive. If we are to continue as a part of this living earth, we need to understand our inborn traits and learn to balance them to give us the good life we desire.

OK, that’s a thumbnail sketch of a biologist’s opinion. Now what’s that got to do with living the Golden Rule? I am saying that you and I both live in a culture of people, now a world of people, all of whom are genetically programmed in the compassion department. You can’t THINK a feeling, and compassion is a feeling, an instinct. But you can think about how act out your feelings to bring you the most benefits. Whether or not you are religious, or even if you are a scheming scoundrel, I propose that you will get along better in the world if you understand the use of practical compassion that balances the short-term benefits of today with the long-term benefits for tomorrow and considers the needs of all the three biological levels of organization, the individual, the community and the whole living earth.

Bare Bones Biology 080 – Golden Rule
Transcript of audio spot on KEOS 89.1 FM
Available here, later this week on


(Recommended reading, Toward a Kinship of Faiths, by The Dalai Lama, WWW.dalailama.com).