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Nov 08
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Good Society: Science, Basic Goodness, Laws and Joy

Photo by Robert V. Ruggiero on Unsplash

The first part of a two-part series by Shastri Russell Rodgers


All over the world, wherever there are humans, there are societies. We have evolved different languages, customs, and even skin colors, but always, there is society. Society has enabled us to transmit knowledge and technologies. These have enabled us humans to dominate the earth, perhaps to our own detriment.

Some strands of Buddhism suggest that society itself can become enlightened. This is the basis of the Himalayan legend of Shambhala. If we are contemplating whether a society can become enlightened, or at least live in harmony with the earth, understanding the urge to “good” society is important.

Since most people don’t like to read long articles on their screens, I will split this up into two parts. In Part I, I will look at how some prominent scientists have theorized that society-building urges are built into our DNA.

In Part II, I will explore how the social undercurrents that exist between humans can be brought into consciousness as we go about our daily lives. I’ll try to explore how our sense of goodness becomes codified in societal laws, and how these can become on-the-spot channels for the expression of goodness.

Part I: The Genetics

Recently, some scientists (for example, read  “Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society by Yale professor Nicholas Christakis) have theorized that the urge to build a “good” society has been put into our DNA by natural selection.

Dr. Christakis reasons that our genes encode possibilities that humans can take advantage of to create society. To support his case, Christakis analyses the commonalities in three different kinds of society-building. He looks at existing cultures around the world, from the tropics to the arctic. He also looks at intentional communities such as communes and kubutzes, and unintentional communities such as those that arose as a result of shipwrecks during the age of European exploration in the 1800s.

The basic logic behind the genetic theory is this: if societies that are geographically isolated from each other evolve in a similar way, there is a probability that the urge to “good” human society is somehow built into our DNA.

One problem that arises when quoting scientific theory is that it gives a subtle impression that humans are machines governed by pre-set genetic programming.  Dr. Christakis does his best to avoid this mechanistic trap. He includes narrative examples and interview material where people describe their subjective experience and make personal judgements. He also makes the point that, in terms of society building, genes give us possibilities and pathways that we can choose to act on, or not.  In other words, we have conscious choice and the genes provide a spectrum of opportunities.

Long-term survival is a key element in his analysis. In other words, did the society in question survive the test of natural selection? Dr. Christakis also looks for societies where that urge for “good” society has been achieved—where people cooperate, have friendship ties, good marital life, feel good about themselves and so on. In his view, a “good” society is incompatible with cruelty or repression.

The Social Suite

Dr. Christakis finds that successful societies are accompanied by what he calls the “social suite”. This includes at least seven factors: the tendency to cooperate, to learn from each other, to befriend others, to care for children who are not kin, to love one’s sexual partners and to value each person’s individuality. What he calls “mild hierarchy” also seems to be essential: in other words, good leadership that is not oppressive.

The Shackleton expedition to Antarctica in 1914 provides a striking example of how the “social suite” can enable survival under hazardous conditions. Their ship was trapped in ice for nine months before it was finally crushed. Then, the crew of 28 dragged small boats over the ice to open water, and sailed 800 miles over storm-tossed, cold ocean to an island that had a small whaling port on the other side. Then five men hiked over snow covered mountains to arrange rescue.

The social arrangements are instructive. The group was diverse—ship’s crew, carpenters, biologists, physicists, and surgeons, all coming from different levels of society. Under Shackleton, everyone participated equally in the demanding chores of survival and foraging. This was done regardless of professional status.  Food was distributed equally (Shackleton often gave his designated portion to others). Everyone had to attend meetings. To encourage bonding and cooperation, they played games, held contests and did theatre and musical productions. They held classes where people taught and learned from each other. After almost two years in harshest conditions imaginable, all 28 survived.

In Shackleton’s case, most of the elements of the social suite came into play: good leadership (and respect for that leadership), cooperation, learning from each other, befriending others, and valuing each person’s individuality. Two elements were not in play: caring for non-kin children and pair bonding. There were no women and no children, and same sex partnerships wouldn’t have been recorded at the time. Shackleton instinctively understood the social suite and used his leadership to encourage it.

Dr. Christakis contrasts stories of shipwrecked groups that were able to achieve success in survival with others where leadership was poor, or an individualistic “survival of the fittest” mentality prevailed. In those situations, the survival rate was usually poor.

“Enlightened Genes”

In his 1978 Seminary, Trungpa Rinpoche used the term “enlightened genes” as a metaphor for buddha nature–intrinsic basic goodness, wakefulness and kindness. Buddha nature is the essence of who we are, much as DNA is a sort of essence biologically. However, Trungpa Rinpoche was clear that enlightened genes exist on a mind level, not on a physical level similar to hair color that is coded by molecules of DNA.

If we look at Dr. Christakis’ “social suite” we see that there is a common denominator of empathy, connection and kindness. In the Shambhala world, the word “kindness” has come into play, partly because there is now a “Sadhana of Kindness” that some centers are doing.

When we talk about wakeful kindness relative to this sadhana, we are talking about something that isn’t necessarily obvious. Before acts or words of kindness can take place, there has to be a basic connection, an undercurrent. It doesn’t have to be expressed: it is felt on an unconscious level. If this connection isn’t blocked in some way, it has the quality of kindness and empathy. It feels “good”.

Mostly, we seem to notice the undercurrent of kindness in its absence: in traffic we might say that a tailgater was being “aggressive”. In a discussion, we might describe an excessively talkative person as “domineering”.  If we are describing an institutional setting, we might say it was “cold and unfeeling”. In an encounter with someone, we might say that they were “unfriendly”.  Someone talking loudly on their cell phone in a restaurant might be described as lacking “common courtesy”. This feels “not good”.

Normally, we expect a certain level of kindness and empathy from others. We just assume it’s the norm and therefore unremarkable. It doesn’t need to be verbalized. However, if we are asking how humans create society, it actually is remarkable. Bringing this unseen undercurrent to conscious awareness might help us to build an enlightened society.

Likewise, living in harmony with our natural environment is hard without being aware of our connection to it. Bringing our unconscious connections up in to conscious awareness will be the topic for Part II of this two-part series.


Russell Rodgers lives in Nelson, a town of 10,000 in the mountains of British Columbia. It is a place of many dralas. He has practiced there since 1975 with a sangha that owns its own building and has about 50 members.





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4 responses to “ Good Society: Science, Basic Goodness, Laws and Joy ”
  1. Thanks, Russell, I enjoyed learning about Christakis’ research and I look forward to the second installment!

  2. How fortunate I feel to have started my day by reading this article. Thanks.

  3. Jaynine Nelson
    Nov 15, 2019

    Enjoyed your article Russell. Thank you!!

  4. Jan Watson
    Nov 9, 2019

    Excellent article Russell, thank you.

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