The Evolution of Kindness and Sympathy

A really good evolution education video via the University of California at Berkeley. We’ve evolved to be more like bonobos than sharks, and it’s one reason why I’m not worried that the decline of religion will lead to deteriorating moral behavior among humans.

Something especially fascinating to me here is the idea that prolonged childhood puts selective pressure on our species to nurture offspring, and to experience the full range of nurturing emotions. These emotions are then extended to adults and distant others as well. Very interesting. Prolonged childhood leads to social bonding.

So if you find yourself sympathetic towards others, thank your children. If they did not take so long to reach maturity and independence, our species might be far less socially cooperative and gregarious than we are. It’s fascinating to contemplate that global civilization, trade, and solidarity exist because our children have evolved to be dependent upon us for so long–and that we have evolved to love them.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to The Evolution of Kindness and Sympathy

  1. andrewclunn says:

    The real question is whether the lower class has greater sympathy because of their situation, or if an inability to control one’s sympathetic impulses leads to poverty. I’d argue that it’s likely the second.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hi Andrew:

      I would guess you’ve got it backwards. The lower class has greater empathy because they are in closer proximity to suffering, and most of the rich are rich because they play extremely well with others. But once you reach a wealthy perch, and have achieved a great deal of distance from the poor, you might well lose some of your ability to engage in imaginative empathy toward anyone other than those in your upper class tribe.

      Think of the Jews in Germany during the 1930s. If you were wealthy, or only ran in your own ethnic circle, the Jews were an abstraction, but if you were living in neighborhoods next door to them, you might well risk your life to hide some of your neighbors or assist them in getting out of the country.

      The key is encountering them in person–and as persons.

      I think of Sir Nicholas Winton. He was a British stock broker in the late 1930s, and just 28 years old. His boss treated the Jews as an abstraction, and advised him not to be concerned about what was going on with them in central Europe. Nevertheless, on the urging of a friend, Sir Nicholas went to Prague to see what was going on with them (he chose this over a ski trip when he had some time off). Out of that trip, he personally saved 600 Jewish children from the Holocaust, placing them with British families. Many of these children went on to become highly productive citizens. One of those children ended up as a prominent scientist at Princeton. This became known as the kindertransport–if you’ve never heard of it.

      Here’s a brief telling of his story. There are longer documentaries on him if you become intrigued:

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Another thought concerning Sir Nicholas: notice the evolutionary advantage his behavior had on the free human community as a whole, and even the benefit to himself. Sir Winton ultimately made 15,000 children and grandchildren for himself–allies he could have readily called upon in a time of need. That’s one hell of an evolutionary advantage (to bank so much informal power and goodwill among so many). His was an evolutionary bonobo strategy, not a shark strategy.

      And those 15,000 people are, on balance, contributing a great deal to the global human community today. The human species as a whole is more robust, not less so, because of Sir Nicholas. And two of those grandchildren, inspired by their adopted grandfather, started their own assistance program for Cambodian children in dire straits who were not on anyone’s radar. So his example and influence continues to spread into the present.

      • andrewclunn says:

        Yes, in the same way that giving money to the poor enables churches to increase their numbers. But I see overpopulation as a HUGE existential and practical problem. Kindness to strangers is bas for you in the immediate, good for you in the long term, but bad for humanity in the longer term. I guess I’m just too selfless and concerned with the wellbeing of the species to give to charity (even I’m not sure how serious / tongue in cheek this post is).

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