Evolution of Compassion
This article is part of an Opinion series on the Interregnum theme of Compassion
Charles Darwin, the father of natural selection, thinks that compassion is humanity’s strongest evolutionary instinct.
In The Descent Of Man, he declared that “those communities, which included the greatest number of the most compassionate members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” This truth punctures modern assumptions about the human psyche and evil. Paradoxically, in a world where only the strong survive, evolution selects for compassion. Human compassion emerges victorious as the most powerful instinct.
Contrary to Darwin’s affirmation, it seems compassion has lost to a history of war and human rights abuses. Even today, parenting has seen dramatic improvement from the past as children are given unprecedented levels of freedom and support to chart their own destinies.
Darwin’s avowal of compassion has left many scholars dumbfounded. He remained skeptical of Christianity for all of his life. Ironically, compassion sits at the center of the biblical narrative. Perhaps, he was subliminally moved by the most powerful expression of compassion known to man: the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the God-man, to liberate a sinful and impenitent humanity.
Paradoxically, in a world where only the strong survive, evolution selects for compassion.
Despite the insurmountable influence of Christianity and Darwinism, compassion still struggles to find a home in modern society. For a culture that fosters excessive materialism and narcissism, evolutionary compassion is like an alien conspiracy theory. However, unless you are psychopath, then chances are you, like everyone else, enjoy compassion and are inspired by it.
This phenomenon is due to the existence of mirror neurons in the brain. Mirror neurons are the basis for empathy. They mimic the neuronal firing of other people to produce the same feeling of an experience. This leads to an understanding of someone else’s emotion. You are transported into their shoes by your own brain. Since, as most experts agree, compassion requires a feeling of another’s distress, mirror neurons form the explanatory basis for the feeling’s origin.
When you help someone through compassion you also experience their joy. This joy is a function of dopamine, among other neurotransmitters. However, the dopamine release is a factor of the distress of the receiver of compassion. The person with compassion does not actually possess this distress. Therefore, the mirror neuron dopamine release is likely to have a greater mood elevation effect than the dopamine release in the person with distress. That is why most people are happy after doing good for others, even when the person receiving compassion is not as ecstatic.
True to Darwin’s analysis, compassion is instinctive. This is owing to the fact that we can’t control the firing of our mirror neuron system. However, we can suppress the feelings that would normally give rise to compassion. Unsurprisingly then, the suppression of emotional expression is one of the most frequent of the emotional regulatory behaviors employed by humans. This suppression is considered the basis for some psychological disorders, like the often comorbid mood and anxiety disorders.
Unsurprisingly then, the suppression of emotional expression is one of the most frequent of the emotional regulatory behaviors employed by humans.
The spontaneity of compassion has profound implications. It seems compassion is not something we manufacture. It comes naturally to us. Furthermore, humans have had compassion for as long as the world has had humans. This also means that we have suppressed compassion for just as long. If compassion involves some form of self-sacrificial care, it is right to conclude that all human evil may be related to suppressing compassion.
What does this all mean? For one, the reality of the Cross becomes more significant. Compassion is more intricately tied to our human nature and survival than previously thought. Also, perhaps because of Darwin’s analysis and our advancement in psychological research, we can finally discard the Hobbesian way of thinking of man in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It seems rather, we are by nature compassionate and unnaturally suppress our inherent disposition.
The cure is simply to let compassion flow from within.
The opinions reflected in this OpEd are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of staff, faculty and students of The King's College