At the same time as Rutger Bregman published Humankind in 2020, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods published Survival of the Friendliest. Their work as evolutionary anthropologists has shown how friendliness and cooperation have been a driving evolutionary force that meant Homo sapiens predominated over the other many species of hominid. In the same year, Lindsay Clarke and I published The Compassion Project, describing the transformation of the town of Frome through the vision of Helen Kingston, the lead GP at Frome Medical Practice, and Jenny Hartnoll, who set up and has run the community development service of Health Connections Mendip. (See Issue 307.) We discuss in the book the profound implications and applicability of making best use of compassion in our educational institutions, our businesses and the environment, and the necessity of the transformation of the politics of compassion. Lying at the heart of environmental destruction is a lack of compassion. Unless the political will is present to have concern for our future and our children’s future, the battle to stop continuing fossil-fuel emissions, loss of biodiversity and increasing consumerism will still rage.

In the hope of providing reasoning, emotion and inspiration, the Survival of the Kindest podcast on the Compassionate Communities UK website seeks to find tales of the presence and absence of compassion in the many spheres of life. Guests have spoken about the startling contrast of compassion and its lack to be found in the history of the Iraq war. The same shocking contrast can be heard through the tales of experiences of working with First Nation communities in Canada. Mary Lou Kelley, who started a programme of palliative care amongst these communities along with First Nation researcher Holly Prince, describes how European-centric culture focuses on independence. First Nation communities are more interested in interdependence, kinship with one another, with animals and with the environment. Oh, how we cry out for such kindness! And Jonathon Porritt discusses his latest book Hope in Hell. We have reason for hope, which he describes as more than being optimistic. Hope is the cause for action.

Signs of this great manifestation of hope can be seen all over the world. Extinction Rebellion and the schools protest started by Greta Thunberg follow the great tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience that has proved to be so effective in instigating change. Programmes of compassionate communities are developing across many continents, including North and South America, Australasia, Europe, and South and East Asia. And at last the good-heartedness of these initiatives is supported by the economic sense of concern for our future. The fossil-fuel industry is no longer a match for renewable energy production, with renewables now overtaking the largest oil industry company, Exxon, on stock markets. There is hope, but it will be the unstinting efforts of us all that will continue to make this compassion potential ripen across the globe.


Social relationships are more effective at keeping us alive and feeling healthy than diet, exercise or giving up smoking or drinking, and far more effective than drug treatment of high blood pressure. Robert Waldinger, fourth lead of the amazing Harvard and Glueck Studies of Adult Development, which have been observing the lives of men from Harvard and Boston since 1938, says: “There was a strong correlation between men’s flourishing lives and their relationships with family, friends, and community. Those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier.”

The converse of good social relationships, the impact of feeling lonely, is bad for our health. The sense of loneliness, whether this is amongst people or in isolation, increases risk of premature death by about one third.

Compassion is built into our evolution, not just in humans but in all animals with backbones. The hallmark of compassion and socialisation is the hormone oxytocin, which is present throughout the animal kingdom. Humans, the most social of animals, are the outcome of hundreds of millions of years of evolution, and we have survived through helping each other out. Survival of the kindest is a much better description of the importance of our social nature than survival of the fittest, which was coined by the 19th-century philosopher Herbert Spencer and was the start of social Darwinism.

Julian Abel is a consultant in palliative care and Director of Compassionate Communities UK. The Compassion Project: A Case for Hope and Humankindness from the Town That Beat Loneliness is published by Octopus Books (2020).