The Pursuit of Kindness argues that there is compelling evidence from evolutionary biology, psychology and archaeology that for 95% of the time that sapiens have walked the earth, Survival of the Fittest for our species has meant survival of the kindest.

Our genes aren’t “selfish.” Natural Selection doesn’t insist that we are naughty or nice. Traits prosper by increasing the chances that our genes will make copies. When we evolved we had to collaborate to survive. Having a conscience was adaptive. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors probably had high rates of punitive homicide, but a rudimentary moral sense is hard-wired, even though it is very influenced by environmental factors thereafter. With soaring populations came warfare between strangers who had no personal ax to grind. Having a conscience became a hindrance to ruthless behavior, generating cognitive dissonance. We are not sociopaths, but we are natural-born narrators.

We manipulated our moral sense to justify our dark side, lying to ourselves through self-serving cognitive biases. We were blinded by passions that lit the pyre under every witch hunt, pogrom and genocide. The book shows how tolerant cultural norms that persist for hundreds of years are rapidly overturned in moments of crisis, when people blame-storm and scapegoat immigrants, religious minorities and social misfits for all of society’s ills, tracking the history of lies and excuses through the stories of Christians who persecuted the enemies they claimed to love, Enlightenment slaveholders who believed all men are created equal, and rationalist Utopians who murdered millions to impose the “despotism of liberty,” especially under Communism and Fascism.

Readers may be surprised to learn that the first legal edict protecting religious freedom in western history, the Edict of Milan, was proclaimed more than 1,700 years ago, or that for a thousand years, élite figures in the Dark Ages taught that it was delusional to believe in sorcerers spoiling crops, poisoning wells or spreading plague, until the invention of the printing press enabled misogynistic fake news about witch-craft to go viral in the Renaissance. They may be intrigued to learn that the first Brexit was over 400 years ago, when the English Parliament refused the title King of Great Britain to James I, fearing inundation by Scottish migrants, including the Hebridean ancestors of Donald Trump. The Act of Union creating Great Britain did not occur for another century.

We have been here many times before. Maintaining the pursuit of kindness in civil society takes substantial cognitive effort in order to check our own biases. We may not be as “morally retarded” as our forebears, to quote Steven Pinker, but our passion for our values, whether liberal or conservative, still leads us to dismiss opponents or policies because of the labels that we attach to them, making it harder to consider dissenting voices in an era of polarization. In the final section, the book tracks the journey back from patriarchy towards pluralism, and the frustration that led to Brexit and Trump. It argues that to maintain the pursuit of kindness in civil society we need to have faith in our values, and believe in what we hope for.