Archive for empathy

A few thoughts on empathy in human beings, and other living creatures

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2015 by jtoddring

Empathy is natural in human beings, as Jeremy Rifkin has pointed out – and with strong backing by recent scientific findings. Some human beings have more and some less; and some are sociopaths – roughly 1% (and usually, the ones who gravitate to positions of wealth and power, unsurprisingly) – who have a near total absence of natural empathy, or, more accurately, a learned callousness, which is always bred from fear. Most people are somewhere in the middle between saintly and sociopathic, and leaning strongly toward a basic good-heartedness, and, as Chomsky put it, having “basically decent impulses.” And most animals are also highly empathic by nature.

That doesn’t mean that carnivores won’t eat you for dinner if they’re hungry – if you’re not considered part of their kin – but they are naturally empathic. And as Kropotkin pointed out – the great Russian scientist who was at least the peer and equal of Darwin, and probably a more important evolutionary biologist – mutual aid and peaceful coexistence are more the norm in nature than are competition and aggression.

(Kropotkin’s great work, Mutual Aid, should, by the way, be read by everyone over the age of twelve, along with Bookchin’s, The Ecology of Freedom, in order to correct a pathological and highly disastrous, and wide-spread misunderstanding, of nature, human nature, and history. This point cannot be stressed enough.)

In any case, most animals clearly have empathy, and we can learn a great deal from them, and draw out our own natural empathy to further degrees by that experience of animal companionship.

Misanthropy is a disease of the mind, although it is widespread now, and, unfortunately, rising. Speciesism and anthropocentrism represent the opposite extreme, and are equally delusional. We should respect ourselves, and we should respect other animals and living creatures as well. We are all kin in the end.

To have empathy is to be truly alive, and to truly live. We should cherish this natural human trait, and nourish it in ourselves and others. To have empathy does not mean that we are weak – in fact, it is our greatest strength. Alone and isolated, we have limited powers – and alone in nature, few would survive at all – but joined together in solidarity and community, we are extraordinarily powerful, and there is little that we cannot do. And animals can help us to see and value that trait of natural empathy all the more, if we allow it.

As Einstein said, “widening the circle of compassion,” along with the search for truth, is, or should be, the central human project. This is what it means to live a meaningful life.

JTR,

October 2, 2015

New studies show generosity and cooperation are both natural and intelligent

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2013 by jtoddring

A new study shows a mathematical proof that generosity leads to evolutionary success.

Generosity leads to evolutionary success

Biologists offer a mathematically based explanation for why cooperation and generosity have evolved in nature [Credit: Web]

“Ever since Darwin,” Plotkin said, “biologists have been puzzled about why there is so much apparent cooperation, and even flat-out generosity and altruism, in nature.”

“When people act generously they feel it is almost instinctual, and indeed a large literature in evolutionary psychology shows that people derive happiness from being generous,” Plotkin said. “It’s not just in humans. Of course social insects behave this way, but even bacteria and viruses share gene products and behave in ways that can’t be described as anything but generous.”

“We find that in evolution, a population that encourages cooperation does well,” Stewart said. “To maintain cooperation over the long term, it is best to be generous.”

The old notion of “survival of the fittest” – which was not an idea put forth by Darwin by the way, but was the work of Herbert Spencer, who distorted Darwin’s ideas to create the ideology of social Darwnism – has now been shown to be wrong.

The great Russian biologist Peter Kropotkin amassed a mountain of evidence to show that cooperation and mutual aid are every bit as normal, natural and common in nature as competition and aggression, in his monumental work, Mutual Aid – the most important work in biology since Darwin. Since then, the evidence has only grown more conclusive that cooperation, empathy, generosity, reciprocity and mutual aid are natural, and common in nature and in human nature. (See also, Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization; Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom; and Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self.)

 
In short, to love thy neighbour is not just virtuous and kind, it is the most intelligent thing to do. And what’s more, it is not at all utopian or wishful thinking to believe that a better world is possible.
 
The fact that a handful of egomaniacs and sociopaths have taken control of the world and are sowing extreme injustice, war, poverty, misery and ecological destruction, does not mean that this is the inevitable course for human beings or human society. We can and must change this. And the scientific evidence is showing that change – real change – is entirely in our power to create.
 
In fact, to overcome the worst aspects of human nature and create a society that is more just and more caring, would be to return more to our own true nature. Certainly greed, egotism, hatred and violence are no more natural than love, compassion, empathy and cooperation; and the science is showing that the latter are much more natural, and more pervasive in nature, as well as more evolutionarily intelligent and successful in the long run.
 
So yes, we can do better, and we can hope for better. And, as Arundhati Roy said, “A better world is not only possible – she is already being born.”
 
J. Todd Ring,
October 9, 2013
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