What We’re Reading: “Survival Of The Kindest: A New Mantra To Rebuild The Global Economy” by Nishan Degnarain

Survival Of The Kindest: A New Mantra To Rebuild The Global Economy by Nishan Degnarain

Creating systems of kindness during hard times


Each day we awake into a world of systems ranging from the commonplace (such as the way one organizes their sock drawer), to the highly complex (such as the universe itself). In between the sock drawer and the universe lies a myriad of other systems in which we operate, perhaps none more reflexively and repeatedly than the global economic system.

Nishan Degnarian’s Forbes article, Survival Of The Kindest: A New Mantra To Rebuild The Global Economy, found its way into my email on the heels of a conversation with colleagues about COVID and the economy. As a family foundation, we were witnessing growing community needs juxtaposed against dramatic gains in the global stock market. Simultaneously, the philanthropic sector was facing increased scrutiny as holdings in donor advised funds increased and people began questioning a static 5% payout rule for private non-operating foundations dating back to 1976.

Degnarian argues that modern economic thinking and its related systems were born from a misconstrued, and yet fixed understanding of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” In his words, this Darwin-based model of economic thinking “valued competition above collaboration, selfishness above empathy, aggression above pacifism.”

It is telling that when Darwin’s seminal work is referenced in “the commons,” it is done so in shorthand, leaving the “Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” out of the conversation (and, one might say, out of our collective conscientious). “Preservation” and “Origin” are some pretty powerful words indicating that the ways of the universe, and the systems under which we’ve operated, are preordained, scientifically proven, and perpetual.

Survival of the Kindest argues we are not, and should not, be constrained by a view of the world from 150 years ago. Modern scientific study has revealed that “the species that have survived the longest are ones that live in groups, have symbiotic relationships with other species, and who behave kindly within the communities that they live in.” Additionally, Degnarian writes that during periods of extreme crisis, we have in fact shifted our viewpoint to a more human-centered and community-focused approach. He argues that our current time of crisis could be yet another opportunity to shift the way the system operates.

Having watched the COVID pandemic unfold through the professional lens of a grants manager, I have heard stories of tremendous need, mental and material anguish, and just plain exhaustion. I have also heard stories of great frustration as individuals try to navigate systems to access basic human needs. After reading Degnarian’s piece, I believe that an absence of kindness in the economic and social systems engineered prior to and during our current crisis are simply managing – if not exacerbating – the challenges of our day.

As we begin to emerge from “the time of COVID,” we have a significant opportunity to reflect upon the idea of kindness, and how it can become an integral part of our systems, both personal and professional.

It is not easy to recalculate an algorithm that has been baked into our operating system for so long; especially in a world where it can seem impossible to switch from something as basic as iOS to Android. However, if there ever was a time to consider recalibrating our economic and philanthropic systems, this could be it. As many scoffed at Darwin’s findings in 1859, many will likely do the same with Degnarian in 2021 – but I would urge you to consider his viewpoint. Adding kindness to our operating systems may be the key to transcending the challenges of our day and securing a more equitable and fulfilling future for our species.

By Kathleen McCarthy i