Éamonn Toland: Now it's cool to be kind

David Roy speaks to Dublin-born author Éamonn Toland about his new book The Pursuit of Kindness: An Evolutionary History of Human Nature

Éamonn Toland, author of The Pursuit of Kindness: An Evolutionary History of Human Nature. Picture by Justine Knight

"I THINK that the pandemic has definitely helped put things in perspective," says Dublin-born author Éamonn Toland of how extraordinary recent global events have reminded us how human kindness and collaboration can actually come to the fore during difficult times – and that such altruistic traits are perhaps more natural to us than a typically cynical 21st century worldview might suggest.

"If you think of the headlines that could have been written a year into lockdown, I'm not sure everyone would have believed just how much solidarity was shown or how much people were willing to give up and to support other people," he continues.

"Now that our lockdowns are ending, at the moment I think people are dying to just get back into contact with others. We're starting to be able to hug our friends and family again with a renewed appreciation."

Thus, Toland's new book The Pursuit of Kindness: An Evolutionary History of Human Nature has hit newly re-opened bookshops at just the right time. Intended as a corrective to enduring though often spuriously evidenced post-Darwin theories about the 'survival of the fittest', Toland draws upon evidence from psychology, archaeology and biology to explain why we're actually naturally predisposed to kindness and collaboration.

He also outlines how the uniquely human trait of 'conscience' has actually increased our chances of survival and why we should make a concerted effort to filter out corrosive fake news (which, the book reminds us, has been around since the invention of the printing press), repress our irrational fear of 'otherness' which can leave us vulnerable to manipulation by power-hungry politicians and stop telling ourselves convenient lies to excuse bad behaviour.

As its title suggests, this compact, fact-packed tome finds the writer providing a potted history of the power of human kindness, as well as illustrating why our evolution has been repeatedly punctuated by awful moments of cruelty committed in the name of various causes – from the Crusades and witch trials to human slavery, the Cromwell family's escapades in Ireland and the Holocaust – despite our natural inclination towards living in harmony.

The Pursuit of Kindness: An Evolutionary History of Human Nature

"If you look at the research, it says we are naturally predisposed to kindness and collaboration," explains Toland.

"Out of the 300,000 years we've been on the planet, for 280,000 of them there's really no evidence of mass war. Back then it was all about sharing resources, hunting and gathering and protecting each other from predators.

"There's lots of evidence that we have this innate sense of kindness: even babies have a sense of right and wrong. In some ways, it was harder for me to explain how kind people could do cruel things.

"One of the 'lightbulb' moments was realising that we really do manipulate our own moral sense in order to do cruel things. If you can convince yourself you are 'good', it is so much easier to be bad."

If you can convince yourself you are 'good', it is so much easier to be bad

- Éamonn Toland 

Indeed, The Pursuit of Kindness is described as "essential reading for all those interested in the survival of the human species" and has been a long time labour of love for Toland, a married father-of-one and first time author with an impressive consultancy-orientated CV.

Previous roles for this Oxford graduate in Modern History and Economics include working as a media spokesman for Fortune 500-rated consultancy company Accenture and providing management consultancy for Accenture and McKinsey & Co. However, undoubtedly his most impressive credential is a stint with Irish gambling giant Paddy Power as president of their North American operation between 2011 and 2016.

No wonder Toland and his family are able to "divide their time between Dublin, London and New York". Where did it all go right, Éamonn?

"This book has been bubbling away in the background for about 30 years," he says.

"I always felt that this was going to be a huge subject to grapple with – so I've kind of being doing the consulting stuff as a way to pay the bills at the same time as trying to get my head around about five or six different disciplines so I could actually write the book."

A mural in Newtownards put up last year to thank all NHS workers for their efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture by Hugh Russell

Contrasting seeds for The Pursuit of Kindness were sown by an eye-opening Oxford course on the history of American slavery illustrating human behaviour at its most cruel and contemptible, along with a massive health scare just a few years later which exposed the north Dubliner to the life-saving kindness and care of the NHS in the wake of a pulmonary embolism-induced heart attack at age 29.

"Being saved by the NHS was fantastic," explains Toland, who collapsed coming off a flight from Hong Kong and was rushed from Heathrow to hospital, where he was exposed to yet more 'light and dark' aspects of human nature.

"But at the same time they were saving my life, they were having to cope with 'granny dumping' [where families 'dump' elderly relatives at the local A&E during holidays] over the Christmas period.

"So I always wanted to try and understand the light and the dark of human nature. And it was the same for slavery. It hadn't always been legal in the US – it was illegal in the colony of Georgia for decades, until cotton became too valuable and they turned their moral code upside down so they could justify it and make money.

"For me, trying to get my head around how good people could justify something so obviously evil was fascinating."

Finally, the million pound question: how can we best perpetuate kindness in an era which, for all the heartening good news stories which emerged during the pandemic, is also characterised by increasingly polarised points of view across the realms of politics, social justice, climate change and race relations?

"I think part of it is mindfulness and just being aware of other people's perspectives," offers Toland.

"There's a great Billy Connolly joke where he says 'before you get into conflict, you should walk a mile in another man's shoes – that way, you're already a mile away from him and you've got his shoes', but sometimes you do just need to take a breath.

"If you're enjoying a good rant about Trump, or Brexit, or whatever it is, just genuinely try to make the best argument that you can for what the other person is thinking – or, maybe even better, go and talk to them. Recognise that we have two ears but only one mouth and actually have those difficult conversations where you listen to what people have to say rather than simply telling them why they're wrong.

"Instead, ask yourself why they might be right."

The Pursuit of Kindness: An Evolutionary History of Human Nature by Éamonn Toland is available now, published by Liberties Press,

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access