By Mandy X. Hu

‘I think the most important question facing humanity is: Is the universe a friendly place?’

This most important question is asked by no other than one of the greatest and most influential scientists of all time: me. myself. I. Okay, admittedly I may have gotten a tiny little bit of inspiration from this dude called Albert Einstein. But who phrased the question is of no consequence. What matters is your answer. It’s not that hard, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ suffices – or if you prefer in this social media era, a simple ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’, a :) or :(. So, what do think? Your answer will determine whether we have the capacity to change academia, society, and, you know, the course of humanity – but no pressure.

No / thumbs down / :(

Lately, I’ve been conversing with people who are of this opinion. The universe is an unfriendly place and it’s in our nature to protect ourselves from it and from each other. In essence, it’s survival of the fittest and every man for himself. I find this belief, however bleak, more than plausible. Evolution, history, and current events support it. To survive, all of us have evolved an autonomic nervous system that is rigged to scan for danger and to be biased towards negativity. On top of that, with the evolution of consciousness, human beings have evolved an Ego – an image of ourselves and how we want others to perceive us – that has taken the game of survival to a whole new dimension. The Ego is greedy and hungry in its desperate hunt for status, power, control – to thrive in this life and ultimately to even survive death by leaving a legacy. Look at history and current events: war, oppression, overconsumption, climate change… And to bring it closer to home, look at academia: the fight to make it to the top, social misconduct, destructive competition and comparison. If it really comes down to this, that the universe is an unfriendly place and that we are above all egotistical and selfish, academia will continue down the path of trampling over one another until all that’s left is burn-out, depression, and anxiety – until there’s nothing left because, as Einstein philosophized, we’ve destroyed everything in our process to eliminate the unfriendly.

Yes / thumbs up / :)

Yay, optimists (or if you belong to the pessimistic group ‘Ugh, delusionists’)! So you believe there is still hope for humanity? What argument is there for this side of the story? What do you do when you hear a cry for help or a child in distress? Not everyone would come running to aid, but the vast majority will have a tendency to help. People – and many other mammals – have evolved the capacity to care. Our mammalian care-giving system (also called soothing system) kicks in naturally when there are no threats to defend against or goals to achieve – in other words, when our survival needs are met. And in modern society most of the time our survival needs are met, right? When you’re reading this, don’t you have a roof over your head, food and water nearby, a warm bed to return to? So our physical needs are met – the problem, of course, is our Ego needs. As I illustrated so passionately above, our Ego is a bottomless pit. So long as the Ego feels anxious and needy, our soothing system doesn’t stand a chance. Does this mean the pessimists win? Maybe. Likely even. But there is hope, and it lives in the word ‘capacity’. We have the capacity for care, acceptance, and compassion. And throughout history, people have expressed this capacity by striving for peace and kindness at their own expense, like Gandhi, Mandela, and the Dalai Lama. A great example in academia is Linus Pauling who received both the Nobel Prize in Chemistry as well as the Nobel Peace Prize. The latter he received for his peace activism against nuclear weapons, which was met with much criticism from fellow scientists. He was even demanded by the Caltech board of Trustees to step down as chairman of the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Division.

But why did Gandhi, Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Pauling do it? What is the driving force behind such selfless acts of kindness? If it doesn’t benefit our own survival, the ‘selflessly kind gene’ shouldn’t have survived evolution, right? And perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps it’s simply a ‘selfishly kind gene’ dressed up in a selfless costume that still mainly benefits ourselves (and our Ego), and the pessimists win. But maybe, just maybe, selfless kindness does exist as a beautiful byproduct of the evolution of consciousness. One that gives us an opportunity to transcend our Ego and be more than the image that we’re trying to protect. And if we choose to look beyond our Ego and the fears that separate us from other humans and beings, we may find that we’re really not that different and feel that we all belong to this universe. We may find a true selfless kindness that encompasses all of us. What would academia be if not for our egotistical motives to be the best? Perhaps a place where the goal of understanding comes before competition and rising to the top. A place where we work together and help each other learn, because what matters is not who takes credit, but how we can make this universe a safer and kinder place. And what would the world be if not for our greedy Ego? Perhaps a place where there’s no us versus them but simply all of us, where we don’t need to overconsume because we know that we already have enough, where we don’t need to prove ourselves because we know we already are enough. If we can be bigger than our Ego, we may yet have a chance to change academia, society, and the course of humanity.

So, Is the universe a friendly place?

I can't give you an answer – it's your choice.

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