(Editor’s Note: we are pleased to bring you this article thanks to our collaboration with Greater Good Magazine).
The Evolution of Empathy
Empathy’s not a uniquely human trait, explains primatologist Frans de Waal. Apes and other animals feel it as well, suggesting that empathy is truly an essential part of who we are.
Once upon a time, the United States had a president known for a peculiar facial display. In an act of controlled emotion, he would bite his lower lip and tell his audience, “I feel your pain.” Whether the display was sincere is not the issue here; how we are affected by another’s predicament is. Empathy is second nature to us, so much so that anyone devoid of it strikes us as dangerous or mentally ill.
At the movies, we can’t help but get inside the skin of the characters on the screen. We despair when their gigantic ship sinks; we exult when they finally stare into the eyes of a long-lost lover.
We are so used to empathy that we take it for granted, yet it is essential to human society as we know it. Our morality depends on it: How could anyone be expected to follow the golden rule without the capacity to mentally trade places with a fellow human being? It is logical to assume that this capacity came first, giving rise to the golden rule itself. The act of perspective-taking is summed up by one of the most enduring definitions of empathy that we have, formulated by Adam Smith as “changing places in fancy with the sufferer.”
Even Smith, the father of economics, best known for emphasizing self-interest as the lifeblood of human economy, understood that the concepts of self-interest and empathy don’t conflict. Empathy makes us reach out to others, first just emotionally, but later in life also by understanding their situation.
This capacity likely evolved because it served our ancestors’ survival in two ways. First, like every mammal, we need to be sensitive to the needs of our offspring. Second, our species depends on cooperation, which means that we do better if we are surrounded by healthy, capable group mates. Taking care of them is just a matter of enlightened self-interest.
It is hard to imagine that empathy—a characteristic so basic to the human species that it emerges early in life, and is accompanied by strong physiological reactions—came into existence only when our lineage split off from that of the apes. It must be far older than that. Examples of empathy in other animals would suggest a long evolutionary history to this capacity in humans.
Evolution rarely throws anything out. Instead, Read the rest of this entry »