Our circle of empathy has continually grown throughout human history. From the tribe in prehistoric times, to religions and nations in modern times. The question is not actually about whether our empathy can expand, but rather how we can remove the barriers that are currently stopping us from identifying closely with all of the members of our global tribe.
Many of the ideas in this post were brought to the fore in Jeremy Rifkin’s excellent talk on the empathic civilisation. We find the talk captivating and well worth the ten minutes. We have been very impressed with the work done by the RSA Animate group in the past, and they continue to deliver on expectations. If you are unfamiliar with who these people are, check out their site. They are the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.
Rifkin starts with a description of the discovery of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons (in our brains) fire in two specific circumstances:
- when we perform a specific action
- when we see another person (or primate, or even another animal) perform that same action.
This is very important because it is a way of linking our experience with that of another being, simply by observing them. Mirror neurons have been discovered in humans, primates, and several other types of animal.
What mirror neurons represent is a biological basis for empathy. Empathy (to use a basic definition) is the ability to experience some of the emotional or physical state of another being. Rifkin gives the example of a monkey seeing a human eat a nut. The monkey has some of the same neurons light up as when the monkey itself ate the nut.
Sense of self and empathy grow together
The human brain develops rapidly throughout childhood and young adulthood. Our development includes gaining the faculties necessary for both self-concept and empathy. As children age, they slowly understand that they have a self, and that others have selves. They eventually understand that they are mortal, and that their time on earth is shared by these other beings who are also mortal. Rifkin summarizes this by saying that with increasing selfhood, or sense of self, we get increasing empathic development. The development of the ability to conceive of one’s self is paralleled with the development of the ability to recognize and identify with the selves of others.
Rifkin claims that this is part of the definitive scientific evidence that we are not softwired for aggression, violence, self-interest, and utilitarianism. We are softwired for sociability, attachment, affection, companionship, and belonging.
Rifkin claims that “Empathy is the oppposite of Utopia”. He defines a utopia as a state lacking pain or unhappiness of any kind. This is interesting because he claims the concept of empathy is based on the shared understanding of mortality. He claims that without a shared sense of mortality, empathy cannot exist.
Empathy expanding through history
How did our system of empathy evolve during the history of humans? We first developed it first with blood relatives, our tribe. Rifkin then claims that the advent of writing and agriculture allowed for institutionalized religion, which was the next major widening of the empathic circle. At this point, people can empathize with members of the same religion because they feel a sense of community based on their shared beliefs.
The next major step was the development of the nation state. Originally, there was no such thing as a government, much less the nations we know today such as France, Germany, etc. They were created by humans. They are a product of our ever-increasing communication power. They were created by a changing social climate, and they have been perpetuated by a lingering belief that nation states are as far as our empathy can go.
Tangent: Human governance
Since the previous paragraphs may be misconstrued as us advocating the abolishment of nations, we will use this tangent to make our positions regarding government clear. We support self-determination to a large extent. It makes sense that people should be able to choose for themselves what sort of society they want to make. However, a rampant granularizing of our political power would leave our societies unable to effectively deal with problems above the scale of communities. The only system that makes sense to us is a reasonably balanced hierarchical government. Here is a rough idea of what the tiers of government might look like:
- Municipalities / Counties / Cities
- Provinces / States
- United Nations
There are some serious problems however with our system in the world today. Power has been focusing more and more into the national governments. The United States is an excellent example. America was founded on principles that make a lot of sense. However, their history has been marked by a continual progression of increasing power in the hands of the federal government. Since the civil war, it has been made clear that no state can secede from the union as per their rights granted in the United States Constitution. This power imbalance is a serious problem for our society, since the smaller legislative entities are constantly being overruled by their national governments, which is less likely to be sensitive to their pleas. More power needs to be allocated to the other three levels: municipalities, provinces, and the United Nations.
To be clear, we would be similarly unimpressed if the UN accumulated enough power that it started to seriously oppress lower tiers of government. However the UN is currently too weak to effectively deal with world-shaping issues. This is essentially the choice of the members of the security council. They have a vested interest in making sure that the world government remains unable to force them into action.
Back to belief systems
It is also in the nature of any institutionalized belief system to want to limit people’s empathy. Institutionalized religions generate a sharp distinction between the faithful and everyone else. This contributes to our sense of separation from one another, and even contradicts some of the better religious teachings (to love your brother as yourself, do unto others only as you would like to be done unto you). Politics creates similar social priorities. The dominant political system in the world today encourages nationalism and ethnocentrism. This is unfortunately perpetuated by our media, which serves goals of profitability rather than understanding.
Tangent: Brand empathy
Our communication tools have become so powerful that corporations have begun to leverage them to synthesize empathy groups. Corporate empathy groups have been created around branded identities. This section draws concepts and examples from the illuminating book “No Logo” by Naomi Klein.
For instance, GM executives once touted the slogan: “What’s good for GM is good for America” This was an attempt to include the entire American family within the GM ‘family’. They were attempting to leverage the national identity to promote their brand. This sort of locally-tailored advertisement is intended to make people feel like they are doing business with a member of their extended family. GM was presenting themselves as a local business.
But brands no longer need to leverage a national identity to create a powerful group. You don’t have to be American to swear by Nike, you just have to love sports. This more general brand empathy allow a larger tribe to form, transcendent of national boarders. For an excellent example, you can glance at this video from Coca-Cola’s campaign during the world cup. Their advertisement is attempting to leverage the concepts of the unity of humankind. In fact, they are trying to use the very sentiments that we are encouraging in this article! This is a mixed bag of course. It is nice that multinational corporations are producing media that encourages a more unified world. However, just like all corporations, they are always conducting their affairs with profit as the primary motive. Brand empathy seeks to exploit our empathic nature in order to drive our consumption of their products.
All humans are kin
Rifkin is adamant that we can base a new conception of our identities as human beings on our shared lineage. The ties linking all humans are actually quite interesting and compelling. Rifkin delves into genetic biology to lay the foundations for his case.
There was a woman in history who passed down her genes through an unbroken line of mothers to all living humans today. She is known as the Mitochondrial Eve. She is estimated to have lived about 200,000 years ago in Africa, before humans had begun to spread from Africa throughout the world. Before people get too excited about this concept, they should read the common fallacies regarding the Mitochondrial Eve. In short: she was not the only woman alive when she lived, she is not our most recent common ancestor, and she did not live at the same time as Y-chromosomal Adam. He is the most recent patrilinear ancestor of everyone on earth, while she is the most recent matrilinear ancestor of everyone on earth. He is thought to have lived between 60,000 and 90,000 years ago in Africa. Neither of these are our most recent common ancestor, since matrilinearity and patrilinearity are constraints. Our most recent common ancestor likely lived long after even Y-chomosomal Adam.
Rifkin draws upon these concepts to demonstrate that humans have an incredible shared heritage. We have all descended from these ancestors. We are all family. With this understanding in place, our empathy will be the foundation for a new era of human development. Humanity as a whole will be our tribe.
Cultural limitations on empathy
Some of our current systems are hampering the development of this empathic civilization. Classical conceptions of parenting, education, business, and government all have aspects that impeding our efforts to become an empathic species. Rifkin claims that the way these systems block our efforts to empathize then contributes directly to our tendencies towards narcissism, materialism, violence and aggression.
This ties in interestingly with another TED talk, this one by Steven Pinker on the myth of violence. Our civilization is rapidly modernizing, which is reducing our propensity for human exploitation and war. Pinker goes into detail on how humans are becoming less violent over time, despite the common perception of the opposite. We have also developed media forms and tools that can rapidly, thoroughly, and effectively deliver us information from anywhere in the world. This is part of the reason why we believe that more bad things are happening in the world than ever. These tools enable us to empathize effectively with groups and people that may have been considered alien or foreign to us in the past. In an economic sense, the other people become possible trading partners. We are learning to value their lives more because of both empathy and the positive sum game of trade.
In a practical sense however, we have many reasons to involve ourselves in humanitarian efforts such as ending poverty. There are distinct consequences for ignoring poverty in the world.
We are homo-empathicus. Empathy is part of our heritage. It is an aspect of our lives that we should embrace more fully. The problems facing our planet require a global perspective that looks at the entire epic of life. Rifkin says, “We’re talking about the ability of human beings to show solidarity, not only with each other, but our fellow creatures who have a one and only life on this little planet. We are homo-empathicus.”
Some people argue that humanity is fundamentally materialistic, self-interested, utilitarian and pleasure seeking. These concepts alone cannot explain the emotional involvement that people feel during world calamities such as the recent Haitian earthquake. Over the course of human history we have slowly been increasing the depth and breadth of our empathy. Now it can easily apply to people on the other side of the world whom we have never met and probably never will meet. For us, these are encouraging thoughts.
Empathy for Gaia
There are many reasons why it makes sense for our empathy to be extended to the entirety of the natural world. Empathy could serve us as a powerful tool in helping us to recognize the importance the natural world has in our lives. Once we understand the depth of our connection with the natural world, we can begin to deal with the environmental facts of our world in a more effective manner.
- Every living thing on this planet shares the fact of mortality. We are here for a limited time, and we have to share this existence. We can understand on some level the scope of the struggle for the survival of every species.
- Our survival depends on the ecosystem. When was the last time you ate a meal that contained nothing that was once alive? Humans cannot survive, let alone thrive without the biosphere that supports us. Some care and reflection on this matter is important. The survival and quality of life of future generations of humans certainly depends critically on our choices today.
When we tell our stories, we need to construct a narrative of together-ness rather than ‘us’ and ‘them’. The quality of all our lives and the sustainability of our civilization both depend critically on this movement. People need to shrug off the chains of their institutionalized beliefs so that they can embrace all of humanity as kin. Hopefully at the same time we can learn how to take better care of our collective home.
Rifkin implores us, “to begin rethinking human nature. To bring out our empathic sociability, so that we can rethink the institutions and society and prepare the groundwork for an empathic civilisation.”
You can find the video at: RSA Animate: Empathic Civilisation.