Compassion and Empathy
By Rick Schleicher


The BBC did a series on, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, real interesting, look it up. The idea of evolution and survival of the fittest as a natural and acceptable perspective has historically led to actions like Hitler’s idea of a superior Arian race, white pride, endorsing the practice of simply ignoring the plight of or even killing any person who is handicapped or weak in some way. One of the most interesting things to me was the small effort the BBC series made attempting to explain how compassion and empathy have survived as human traits and then they just dropped the subject all together at the end of the first installment.

Compassion and empathy can be really dangerous/antithetical to survival, think of the people tortured and/or killed that sheltered Anna Frank for example or ran the underground railroad to smuggle slaves north during and around the time of the civil war in the US. There’re countless examples of selfless acts in our history. Selflessness by definition puts a ton of extra pressure on that trait to survive in a species.

Why have those traits not been bred out of us long ago?

Perhaps compassion and empathy have peripheral benefits for our species we can’t clearly identify. Maybe compassion and empathy within a tribal or family setting increases the likelihood of its survival, but it is hard to make an argument for that with some exceptions. I’m reminded in an extreme example of the Sioux Indians of what became the continental US, when a compassionate member of the tribe becomes too old to help the tribe, has become a burden on the tribe, they would voluntarily leave the tribe, go out on their own and die. However, compassion and empathy being applied outside the tribe or clan must be counterproductive, a hay-wired manifestation, unless compassion and empathy also act as a bonding agent that supersedes or transgresses established behavior codes, pulling things or people together that would otherwise remain separate.

I am suggesting that within mankind there is a scale tipping percentage of humans, not saying majority, might be 20%, maybe even as low as 5%, but it is enough to tip the scale in favor of the survival of homo sapiens. This small percent is genetically wired or taught to care for not only their own family, clan, tribe, country or religion, but other humans who have different ideas outside their own immediate considerations, maybe even animals or you know, the planet. My only corroborating evidence of this is that we, as a species, would exhibit characteristics even less caring about anything that doesn’t benefit us directly than we seem to do.

Another thing they mention in the BBC series, you’ve probably heard before. The planet earth is going through a period of massive extinctions. More species are becoming extinct faster than has ever happened in the history of the planet; 3 species an hour, 500 hundred a week, 27,000 a year. In the Galápagos, the extinction of species comes into remarkable relief in that to start with there are fewer species per square mile here than practically anywhere else on the planet, most of these are endemic (exist nowhere else on the planet) and some of their naturally occurring numbers are only hundreds. The introduction of the wrong microbe or insect is often the end of a species. That’s gone, as in never coming back. Mankind of course is the active agent in this mass extinction on the planet and here in the Galápagos as well. It’s as if we are hell bent on killing everything, ourselves included.

When I was young, we had this thing going on where the Soviet Union and the US were doing their god damned best to have a nuclear war, essentially blow up the planet. We practiced for it, built personal bomb shelters, did “duck and cover” exercises at school. As a kid I thought duck as in quack quack because I’d seen the movies of an atomic bomb going off. What we were doing by hiding under our desks had to have some other reference than to protect us from an atomic blast.

What happened? Turns out the Russians liked Levi Jeans and Coke-a-Cola more than food shortages.

Also, around that time, there wasn’t going to be enough food to feed all the people on the planet. It was all over the news, Walter Cronkite. There was an astounding, unheard of, absurd, unsupportable number of people being born, and we weren’t stopping. Nothing was going to stop us from having babies. More than three billion souls lived on this vessel, the planet earth and there was not enough food to feed them all. There literally wasn’t.

What happened? Mostly hybrid grains with higher yields and heightened resistance to drought, disease and bugs were developed. Today there are more than seven and a half billion people riding around the sun on this planet.

My point here is I doubt that the future of mankind appeared any less dire when I was a kid than it does now. It might be, I don’t know. I prefer to think not, prefer optimism backed up by positive actions/choices will turn the trick.

It may be that since we currently seem to be killing off species at an alarming rate we are headed for our own demise as a species, but it also might be we are headed for an unprecedented union as a species, finally getting beyond our tribal, fear-based relationships with each other; nothing like a disaster, a common threat to bring everyone together. We do have some “pudding” (proof is in the pudding) regarding handling crises together in spite of our differences. There are many examples in our histories and legends.

Compassion and empathy, self-sacrificing may be genetic traits we are predisposed to, or they may be taught, but whoever has been teaching this somewhat obscure way of thinking had to survive to pass it on, so it doesn’t matter to me which (chicken and the egg kind of thing). We/mankind have evolved, survived so far, I believe, not in spite of these traits, but because of them. It is Darwinian, survival of the fittest! And the fittest, apparently, are compassionate and empathetic.