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Kindness Matters

The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code (2020) by Michael E. McCullough - A Review

M. McCullough, The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code (2020) is an important book for understanding the Quaker tradition.  The book confirms and clarifies dimensions of the Quaker experience in expanding the scope of care.  It makes the case for human universalism of which Quakers are a part.

The author follows and clarifies the Darwin tradition that generosity and altruism are not genetic, but a function of the education we give ourselves through a process of one person leading, then a few persons spreading the practical insight through teaching. Humans model examples to the youth, learning which eventually becomes incorporated in broader public opinion and then in culture.  

The author argues that humans learn from social expressions of approval and censure, through visible role models, by following incentives, and through learning by doing. Human experience shows that acts of practical compassion (practice) bring gratitude and glory, mitigate the bad effects of poverty and desperation, grow economies, help humans take responsibility for their lives, provide meaning and fulfillment, and that this repetition is transformed into a duty.  What human cultures need are forums for discussion of the scope of care and the conduct of altruism going forward in time.

The book’s title is misleading.  The book is not about the embedded pattern of acts of kindness of strangers toward us, but it is about the development of standards of  kindness by us toward strangers.  It is not about apes, conscious invention, or the development of a moral code.   It is about the human development of generosity and altruism through biology and historic experience in a specific geographical region that is currently Europe.

The book’s structure follows an introduction, followed by the psychological obstacles to altruism, the human resources for developing altruism, the support for altruism in several European events of mass suffering that forced humans to consider the needs of strangers beyond their kin groups, and a useful summary conclusion about the mechanism for identifying, confirming, and expanding cultural altruism toward strangers.

The book is essentially limited to the western European experience, while making the case for the universality of its application and relevance.  The experience of East, Middle East, and Africa experience is not comparably addressed.

The pages turn quickly. The style is lively and very clear.

The book makes a case for universalism of caregiving.  It is attractive and insightful.  It supports Quaker reflection.

The book includes an index, an extensive bibliography, and dry endnote references. The table of contents is not clear for the reader and is unnecessarily cute for such an important subject for clarification. The inclusion of the subtitles in the text for each chapter heading in the table of contents would be helpful to reader understanding.

Quakers: The book includes no reference to Quakers. The book shows real affinity for the Quaker concerns.  It focuses our understanding of reality and the conformity of conduct over large time lines, within which time frames, Quaker do their duty of discernment and advocacy.


  • Are Quakers comfortable with an explanation of Quaker discernment of reality and conduct without the use of Quaker language or the broader language of the Christian tradition?
  • Does the analysis in this book support Quaker advocacy when altruism  is unsuccessful in the short term?


The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code, Michael E. McCullough (Basic Books, 2020

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