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Ecological Reciprocity: A Gentle Mandate for Global Kindness

A revolutionary study of the biology of compassion and cooperation.

Key points

  • There is an ethical history of humankind supporting the idea that all humans are decent, caring, and capable at their very best.
  • To solve problems like the climate crisis and end the war on other species, the next generation must rally around the strengths of human nature.
  • Ultimately, becoming in sync with all "others" translates into interspecies love affairs and pragmatic idealism.
 Michael Tobias, with permission.
Indian Sambar Deer
Source: Michael Tobias, with permission.

November 13 is World Kindness Day, and a few days ago, I received a copy of Michael Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison's landmark book, Ecological Reciprocity: A Treatise on Kindness. The timing couldn't have been better and I'm thrilled that Michael and Jane could take the time to answer a few questions about their riveting new book, a gentle and humane manifesto for global kindness.1,2 Here's what they had to say about their revolutionary new study of the biology and metaphysics of global compassion and cooperative social structures throughout the natural world.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Ecological Reciprocity and why did you have it translated into Greek?

MT and JGM: The biological world is hemorrhaging with tragic news, but it is also the case that an unheralded abundance of kindness is omnipresent. It’s everywhere one looks, both amongst humans and their communities, but also throughout the biochemical reality of earth. Mutualism, co-symbiosis, interspecies altruism, biophilia, and physiolatry—the love and reverence for nature, a quality that will clearly be key to our own species’ survival—all of these cooperative structures render a very poignant verdict; a crucial narrative for our time.

Michael Tobias, with permission.
Source: Michael Tobias, with permission.

Our species has 330,000 years of kindness in its past evolutionary, (hologenomic) co-habitation with tens of millions of other species. Ancient Greek philosophers, including Pythagoras and Aristotle, were quite fond of the word kindness, or καλοσύνη (kalosýni) because of its multiple meanings, which include goodness, humaneness, and benevolence.

We were deeply grateful that our dear friend Ms. Niki Stavrou was willing to translate the text into Greek, a language of kindness. She is the CEO of Kazantzakis Publications in Athens, and head of the Kazantzakis estate, referring, of course, to the great Greek writer, philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) and his late wife Eleni Kazantzakis. It was Kazantzakis who wrote, “I said to the almond tree, ‘Sister, speak to me of God.’ And the almond tree blossomed.”

We were also very fortunate to have Ms. Nadya Columbus of Nova Science Publishers work with us on this book and others.

MB: How does your book relate to your backgrounds and general areas of interest?

MT and JGM: Ahimsa, non-violence in Sanskrit, and a central pillar of Jainism, and most other world spiritual traditions, have been core to the conservation and animal rights activism throughout our lives. Kindness is the through-story in life. Without it, life could not have survived, certainly not at the vertebrate level. As mammals, we would not exist but for the broad nurturance inherent to kindness, kalosýni.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

MT and JGM: Everyone.

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your new book, and what are some of your major messages?

MT and JGM: It starts with the revelatory work of the great, late paleontologist, André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986) whose research truly helped us understand the nature of paleolithic aesthetics, the collaboration of species. He divined virtual algorithms for decoding messages from 30,000 years ago—crucial telegrams to our own time that speak to biophilia, the passion, enthusiasm, virtue, and deep emotional ties that all species feel for one another. He echoed Leviticus 19:18, “Love thy neighbor as thyself." We write in our Introduction to the book, “How many have set aside serious time and effort to save a fly, Musca domestica, weighing approximately 0.00035th of an ounce? With brilliant eyesight, unmatchable aerodynamics, and its own great passion to live, to survive, even if for only 2-4 weeks in human time, every fly is precious. Try to build one!” All life forms urgently need, indeed demand, our respect.

From there, we cover an abundance of data concerning cosmopolitan sets of co-symbiotic relationships throughout the natural world. The underlying argument holds that reciprocal ties are the most significant experiments in ecological history. For our species, and so many others, it means that the ratio of handprints to handshakes has evolved with vast consequences on either side of that spellbinding reality of a very small planet, that hosts (if one includes all seven Kingdoms of lifeforms) as many as one trillion other species. Imagine the utterly infinite possibilities for human kindness. It’s simply thrilling.

We look at the history of human warfare, of horrific violence, most heinous at the level of factory farming, and the murder by our kind of as many as two to three trillion individual animals every year for human consumption and/or additional forms of exploitation. This is the vast, seemingly unending darkness that enshrouds our story. But we counter this nightmare—which is the equivalent of utter self-destruction by way of insanity—with an entirely different framework, an ethical history of humankind that supports an entirely plausible hypothesis. Namely, that we are all decent, caring, and capable, at our very best. That’s what we must rally around, in this generation.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

MT and JGM: The book examines human genetic predispositions within the expansive quadrants of biophilia. And it brings to bear on the topic a fairly extensive, quite original history of anthropological data, and literary and philosophical discussions that make the ethical latitude for compassion utterly self-evident. From working together to nullify the climate crisis to globally ending the human war against other species, this is our challenge, this is our time, we can and we must all do this. It moves from the science of compassion to the necessity of tackling social, ethnic, environmental, economic, and political disparities; ending hunger; formulating rational population stabilization policies; and reinventing for our time a new voluntary simplicity that is in total sync with all the Others. It means venturing collectively down a path of tenable ecological facts, treaties, and codified forms of restraint. Ultimately it translates into interspecies love affairs and pragmatic idealism.


A conversation with Michael Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison.


1) The book's description reads: This elegant treatise examines the nature of kindness through the fascinating lenses and contexts of ancient, medieval and contemporary philosophy, natural history, theories of mind, of natural selection, eco-psychology and sociobiology. It challenges the reader to consider the myriad potential consequences of human behavior, examining various iconographic moments from the history of art and science as a precursor to the concept and vital potentials for ecological conversion. Focusing on the fundamental mechanisms of reciprocity among humans, other species, communities and nations, Tobias and Morrison lead readers on a remarkable journey whose itinerary, and the provocative questions explored, seek to affirm a pattern in evolution and in human thought that is emphatically oriented towards benevolence, not tyranny. Prosociality in all species – making others happy, kind gestures at any and every juncture of life – has, as a discipline of enquiry, enjoyed a social scientific renaissance during the last decade. Can natural selection move rapidly enough to meet that ultimate challenge? Can our species re-evolve in real time, moving from the ideas, to the ideals, to their applied engineering in a real world that is ecologically hemorrhaging? Which all the critical moral and cognitive changes in social communion such new human nature, as the Authors suggest, clearly requires? This groundbreaking work of ecological philosophy, with its roots in ancient Greek thought, represents a radical break with nearly every traditional scientific paradigm, in exploring the intuitive geography and dramatic questions of ourselves – each and every one of us – that will prove crucial to the survival of our species, and all those we co-habit this miraculous planet with.

2) Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison, partners who between them have authored some 60 books and written, directed and produced dozens of films, a prolific body of work that has been read, translated and/or broadcast around the world, have been married for over thirty years. Their field research across the disciplines of deep ethology, eco-psychology, comparative literature, anthropology, the history of science and philosophy, and ethics, in over 100 countries, on every continent, has served as a telling example of what two people – deeply in love with one another – can accomplish in spreading that same unconditional love to others – of all species. For other interviews with Michael and Jane click here.

Bekoff, Marc. "When Animals Rescue": Reflections on Kindness and Morality.

_____. On World Kindness Day, Let's Expand Our Compassion Footprint.

_____. Animal Kindness: Bonobos Forego Food To Give To Strangers.

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