by Gary Olson
October 24th, 2007
Are humans “wired for empathy”? How does this affect what Chomsky calls the “manufacturing of consent”?
Throughout the world, teachers, sociologists, policymakers and parents are discovering that empathy may be the single most important quality that must be nurtured to give peace a fighting chance.
The official directives needn’t be explicit to be well understood: Do not let too much empathy move in unauthorized directions.
The nonprofit Edge Foundation recently asked some of the world’s most eminent scientists, “What are you optimistic about? Why?” In response, the prominent neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni cites the proliferating experimental work into the neural mechanisms that reveal how humans are “wired for empathy.”Iacoboni’s optimism is grounded in his belief that, with the popularization of scientific insights, these recent findings in neuroscience will seep into public awareness and “… this explicit level of understanding our empathic nature will at some point dissolve the massive belief systems that dominate our societies and that threaten to destroy us.” (Iacoboni, 2007, p. 14)
While there are reasons to remain skeptical (see below) about the progressive political implications flowing from this work, a body of impressive empirical evidence reveals that the roots of prosocial behavior, including moral sentiments such as empathy, precede the evolution of culture. This work sustains Noam Chomsky’s visionary writing about a human moral instinct, and his assertion that, while the principles of our moral nature have been poorly understood, “we can hardly doubt their existence or their central role in our intellectual and moral lives.” (Chomsky, 1971, n.p., 1988; 2005, p. 263)
In his influential book Mutual Aid (1972, p. 57; 1902), the Russian revolutionary anarchist, geographer, and naturalist Petr Kropotkin, maintained that “… under any circumstances sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life. Those species which willingly abandon it are doomed to decay.” Species cooperation provided an evolutionary advantage, a “natural” strategy for survival.
While Kropotkin readily acknowledged the role of competition, he asserted that mutual aid was a “moral instinct” and “natural law.” Based on his extensive studies of the animal world, he believed that this predisposition toward helping one another—human sociality—was of “prehuman origin.” Killen and Cords, in a fittingly titled piece “Prince Kropotkin’s Ghost,” suggest that recent research in developmental psychology and primatology seems to vindicate Kropotkin’s century-old assertions (2002).
The emerging field of the neuroscience of empathy parallels investigations being undertaken in cognate fields. Some forty years ago the celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall observed and wrote about chimpanzee emotions, social relationships, and “chimp culture,” but experts remained skeptical. A decade ago, the famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal (1996) wrote about the antecedents to morality in Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, but scientific consensus remained elusive.
All that’s changed. As a recent editorial in the journal Nature (2007) put it, it’s now “unassailable fact” that human minds, including aspects of moral thought, are the product of evolution from earlier primates. According to de Waal, “You don’t hear any debate now.” In his more recent work, de Waal plausibly argues that human morality—including our capacity to empathize—is a natural outgrowth or inheritance of behavior from our closest evolutionary relatives.
Following Darwin, highly sophisticated studies by biologists Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson posit that large-scale cooperation within the human species—including with genetically unrelated individuals within a group—was favored by selection. (Hauser, 2006, p. 416) Evolution selected for the trait of empathy because there were survival benefits in coming to grips with others. In his book, People of the Lake (1978) the world-renowned paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey unequivocally declares, “We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation.”
Studies have shown that empathy is present in very young children, even at eighteen months of age and possibly younger. In the primate world, Warneken and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute at Leipzig, Germany, recently found that chimps extend help to unrelated chimps and unfamiliar humans, even when inconvenienced and regardless of any expectation of reward. This suggests that empathy may lie behind this natural tendency to help and that it was a factor in the social life of the common ancestor to chimpanzees and humans at the split some six million years ago (New Scientist, 2007; Warneken and Tomasello, 2006). It’s now indisputable that we share moral faculties with other species (de Waal, 2006; Trivers, 1971; Katz, 2000; Gintis, 2005; Hauser, 2006; Bekoff, 2007; Pierce, 2007). Pierce notes that there are “countless anecdotal accounts of elephants showing empathy toward sick and dying animals, both kin and non-kin” (2007, p. 6). And recent research in Kenya has conclusively documented elephant’s open grieving/empathy for other dead elephants.
Mogil and his team at McGill University recently demonstrated that mice feel distress when they observe other mice experiencing pain. They tentatively concluded that the mice engaged visual cues to bring about this empathic response (Mogil, 2006; Ganguli, 2006). De Waal’s response to this study: “This is a highly significant finding and should open the eyes of people who think empathy is limited to our species.” (Carey, 2006)
Further, Grufman and other scientists at the National Institutes of Health have offered persuasive evidence that altruistic acts activate a primitive part of the brain, producing a pleasurable response (2007). And recent research by Koenigs and colleagues (2007) indicates that within the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or VMPC is required for emotions and moral judgment. Damage to the VMPC has been linked to psychopathic behavior. This led to the belief that as a rule, psychopaths do not experience empathy or remorse.
A study by Miller (2001) and colleagues of the brain disorder frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is also instructive. FTD attacks the frontal lobes and anterior temporal lobes, the site of one’s sense of self. One early symptom of FTD is the loss of empathy.
We know from neuroscientific empathy experiments that the same affective brain circuits are automatically mobilized upon feeling one’s own pain and the pain of others. Through brain imaging, we also know that separate neural processing regions then free up the capacity to take action. As Decety notes, empathy then allows us to “forge connections with people whose lives seem utterly alien from us” (Decety, 2006, p. 2). Where comparable experience is lacking, this “cognitive empathy” builds on the neural basis and allows one to “actively project oneself into the shoes of another person” by trying to imagine the other person’s situation (Preston, in press), Preston and de Waal (2002). Empathy is “other directed,” the recognition of the other’s humanity.
So where does this leave us? If morality is rooted in biology, in the raw material or building blocks for the evolution of its expression, we now have a pending fortuitous marriage of hard science and secular morality in the most profound sense. The technical details of the social neuroscientific analysis supporting these assertions lie outside this paper, but suffice it to say that progress is proceeding at an exponential pace and the new discoveries are persuasive (Decety and Lamm, 2006; Lamm, 2007; Jackson, 2004 and 2006).
That said, one of the most vexing problems that remains to be explained is why so little progress has been made in extending this empathic orientation to distant lives, to those outside certain in-group moral circles. Given a world rife with overt and structural violence, one is forced to explain why our deep-seated moral intuition doesn’t produce a more ameliorating effect, a more peaceful world. Iacoboni suggests this disjuncture is explained by massive belief systems, including political and religious ones, operating on the reflective and deliberate level. These tend to override the automatic, pre-reflective, neurobiological traits that should bring people together.
Here a few cautionary notes are warranted. The first is that social context and triggering conditions are critical because, where there is conscious and massive elite manipulation, it becomes exceedingly difficult to get in touch with our moral faculties. Ervin Staub, a pioneering investigator in the field, acknowledges that even if empathy is rooted in nature, people will not act on it “… unless they have certain kinds of life experiences that shape their orientation toward other human beings and toward themselves (Staub, 2002, p. 222). As Jensen puts it, “The way we are educated and entertained keep us from knowing about or understanding the pain of others” (2002). Circumstances may preclude and overwhelm our perceptions, rendering us incapable of recognizing and giving expression to moral sentiments (Albert, n.d.; and also, Pinker, 2002). For example, the fear-mongering of artificially created scarcity may attenuate the empathic response. The limitation placed on exposure is another. As reported recently in the New York Times, the Pentagon imposes tight embedding restrictions on journalist’s ability to run photographs and other images of casualties in Iraq. Photographs of coffins returning to Dover Air Base in Delaware are simply forbidden. Memorial services for the fallen are also now prohibited even if the unit gives its approval.
The second cautionary note is Hauser’s (2006) observation that proximity was undoubtedly a factor in the expression of empathy. In our evolutionary past an attachment to the larger human family was virtually incomprehensible and, therefore, the emotional connection was lacking. Joshua Greene, a philosopher and neuroscientist, adds that “We evolved in a world where people in trouble right in front of you existed, so our emotions were tuned to them, whereas we didn’t face the other kind of situation.” He suggests that to extend this immediate emotion-linked morality—one based on fundamental brain circuits—to unseen victims requires paying less attention to intuition and more to the cognitive dimension. If this boundary isn’t contrived, it would seem, at a minimum, circumstantial and thus worthy of reassessing morality (Greene, 2007, n.p.). Given some of the positive dimensions of globalization, the potential for identifying with the “stranger” has never been more robust.
Finally, as Preston (2006-2007; and also, in press) suggests, risk and stress tend to suppress empathy whereas familiarity and similarity encourage the experience of natural, reflexive empathy. This formidable but not insurmountable challenge warrants further research into how this “out-group” identity is created and reinforced.
It may be helpful, as Halpern (1993, p. 169) suggests, to think of empathy as a sort of spark of natural curiosity, prompting a need for further understanding and deeper questioning. However, our understanding of how or whether political engagement follows remains in its infancy and demands further investigation.
Almost a century ago, Stein (1917) wrote about empathy as “the experience of foreign consciousness in general.” Salles’ film The Motorcycle Diaries addresses empathy, albeit indirectly. The film follows Ernesto Guevara de la Serna and his friend Alberto Granada on an eight-month trek across Argentina, Peru, Columbia, Chile and Venezuela.
When leaving his leafy, upper middle-class suburb (his father is an architect) in Buenos Aires in 1952, Guevara is 23 and a semester away from earning his medical degree. The young men embark on an adventure, a last fling before settling down to careers and lives of privilege. They are preoccupied with women, fun and adventure and certainly not seeking or expecting a life-transforming odyssey.
The film’s power is in its depiction of Guevara’s emerging political awareness that occurs as a consequence of unfiltered cumulative experiences. During their 8,000-mile journey, they encounter massive poverty, exploitation, and brutal working conditions, all consequences of an unjust international economic order. By the end, Guevara has turned away from being a doctor because medicine is limited to treating the symptoms of poverty. For him, revolution becomes the expression of empathy, the only effective way to address suffering’s root causes. This requires melding the cognitive component of empathy with engagement, with resistance against asymmetrical power, always an inherently political act. Otherwise, empathy has no meaning. (This roughly parallels the political practice of brahma-viharas by engaged Buddhists.) In his own oft-quoted words (not included in the film), Guevara stated that, “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.”
Paul Farmer, the contemporary medical anthropologist, infectious-disease specialist and international public health activist, has adopted different tactics, but his diagnosis of the “pathologies of power” is remarkably similar to Guevara. He also writes approvingly of Cuba’s health programs, comparing them with his long work experience in Haiti. Both individuals were motivated early on by the belief that artificial epidemics have their origin in unjust socioeconomic structures, hence the need for social medicine, a “politics as medicine on a grand scale.” Both exemplify exceptional social outliers of engaged empathy and the interplay of affective, cognitive and moral components. For Farmer’s radical critique of structural violence and the connections between disease and social inequality, see (Farmer, 2003; Kidder, 2003). Again, it remains to be explained why there is such a paucity of real world examples of empathic behavior? Why is U.S. culture characterized by a massive empathy deficit of almost pathological proportions? And what might be reasonably expected from a wider public understanding of the nature of empathy?
Hauser posits a “universal moral grammar,” hard-wired into our neural circuits via evolution. This neural machinery precedes conscious decisions in life-and-death situations, however, we observe “nurture entering the picture to set the parameters and guide us toward the acquisition of particular moral systems.” At other points, he suggests that environmental factors can push individuals toward defective moral reasoning, and the various outcomes for a given local culture are seemingly limitless. (Hauser, 2006) For me, this discussion of cultural variation fails to give sufficient attention to the socioeconomic variables responsible for shaping the culture.
“It all has to do with the quality of justice and the availability of opportunity.” (2006, p. 151). Earlier, Goldschmidt (1999, n.p.) argued that, “Culturally derived motives may replace, supplement or override genetically programmed behavior.”
Cultures are rarely neutral, innocent phenomena but are consciously set up to reward some people and penalize others. As Parenti (2006) forcefully asserts, certain aspects of culture can function as instruments of social power and social domination through ideological indoctrination. Culture is part and parcel of political struggle, and studying culture can reveal how power is exercised and on whose behalf.
Cohen and Rogers, in parsing Chomsky’s critique of elites, note that “Once an unjust order exists, those benefiting from it have both an interest in maintaining it and, by virtue of their social advantages, the power to do so.” (Cohen, 1991, p. 17) (For a concise but not uncritical treatment of Chomsky’s social and ethical views, see Cohen, 1991.) Clearly, the vaunted human capacity for verbal communication cuts both ways. In the wrong hands, this capacity is often abused by consciously quelling the empathic response. When de Waal writes, “Animals are no moral philosophers,” I’m left to wonder if he isn’t favoring the former in this comparison. (de Waal, 1996b, n.p.)
One of the methods employed within capitalist democracies is Chomsky’s and Herman’s “manufacture of consent,” a form of highly sophisticated thought control. Potentially active citizens must be “distracted from their real interests and deliberately confused about the way the world works.” (Cohen, 1991, p. 7; Chomsky, 1988)
For this essay, and following Chomsky, I’m arguing that the human mind is the primary target of this perverse “nurture” or propaganda, in part because exposure to certain new truths about empathy—hard evidence about our innate moral nature—poses a direct threat to elite interests. There’s no ghost in the machine, but the capitalist machine attempts to keep people in line with an ideological ghost, the notion of a self constructed on market values. But “. . . if no one saw himself or herself as capitalism needs them to do, their own self-respect would bar the system from exploiting and manipulating them.” (Kelleher, 2007) That is, given the apparent universality of this biological predisposition toward empathy, we have a potent scientific baseline upon which to launch further critiques of elite manipulation, this cultivation of callousness.
First, the evolutionary and biological origins of empathy contribute hard empirical evidence—not wishful thinking or even logical inference—on behalf of a case for organizing vastly better societies.
In that vein, this new research is entirely consistent with work on the nature of authentic love and the concrete expression of that love in the form of care, effort, responsibility, courage and respect. As Eagleton reminds us, if others are also engaging in this behavior, “. . . the result is a form of reciprocal service which provides the context for each self to flourish. The traditional name for this reciprocity is love.” Because reciprocity mandates equality and an end to exploitation and oppression, it follows that “a just, compassionate treatment of other people is on the grand scale of things one of the conditions for one’s own thriving.” And as social animals, when we act in this way we are realizing our natures “at their finest.” (2007, pp. 170, 159-160, and 173) Again, the political question remains that of realizing a form of global environment that enhances the opportunity for our nature to flourish.
I’ve noted elsewhere, Fromm’s classic book The Art of Loving is a blistering indictment of the social and economic forces that deny us life’s most rewarding experience and “the only satisfying answer to the problem of human existence.” For Fromm, grasping how society shapes our human instincts, hence our behavior, is in turn the key to understanding why “love thy neighbor,” the love of the stranger, is so elusive in modern society.
The global capitalist culture with its premium on accumulation and profits not only devalues an empathic disposition but produces a stunted character in which everything is transformed into a commodity, not only things, but individuals themselves. The very capacity to practice empathy (love) is subordinated to our state religion of the market in which each person seeks advantage in an alienating and endless commodity-greedy competition.
Over five decades ago, Fromm persuasively argued that “The principles of capitalist society and the principles of love are incompatible.” (Fromm, 1956, p. 110). Any honest person knows that the dominant features of capitalist society tend to produce individuals who are estranged from themselves, crippled personalities robbed of their humanity and in a constant struggle to express empathic love. Little wonder that Fromm believed radical changes in our social structure and economic institutions were needed if empathy/love is to be anything more than a rare individual achievement and a socially marginal phenomenon. He understood that only when the economic system serves women and men, rather than the opposite, will this be possible (Olson, 2006).
The dominant cultural narrative of hyper-individualism is challenged and the insidiously effective scapegoating of human nature that claims we are motivated by greedy, dog-eat-dog “individual self-interest is all” is undermined. From original sin to today’s “selfish gene,” certain interpretations of human nature have invariably functioned to retard class consciousness. These new research findings help to refute the allegation that people are naturally uncooperative, an argument frequently employed to intimidate and convince people that it’s futile to seek a better society for everyone. Stripped of yet another rationalization for empire, predatory behavior on behalf of the capitalist mode of production becomes ever more transparent. And learning about the conscious suppression of this essential core of our nature should beg additional troubling questions about the motives behind other elite-generated ideologies, from neo-liberalism to the “war on terror.”
Second, there are implications for students. Cultivating empathic engagement through education remains a poorly understood enterprise. College students, for example, may hear the ‘cry of the people’ but the moral sound waves are muted as they pass through a series of powerful cultural baffles. Williams (1986, p. 143) notes that “While they may be models of compassion and generosity to those in their immediate circles, many of our students today have a blind spot for their responsibilities in the socio-political order. In the traditional vocabulary they are strong on charity but weak on justice.”
Nussbaum (1997) defends American liberal education’s record at cultivating an empathic imagination. She claims that understanding the lives of strangers and achieving cosmopolitan global citizenship can be realized through the arts and literary humanities. There is little solid evidence to substantiate this optimism. My own take on empathy-enhancing practices within U.S. colleges and universities is considerably less sanguine. Nussbaum’s episodic examples of stepping into the mental shoes of other people are rarely accompanied by plausible answers as why these people may be lacking shoes—or decent jobs, minimum healthcare, and long-life expectancy. The space within educational settings has been egregiously underutilized, in part, because we don’t know enough about propitious interstices where critical pedagogy could make a difference. Arguably the most serious barrier is the cynical, even despairing doubt about the existence of a moral instinct for empathy. The new research puts this doubt to rest and rightly shifts the emphasis to strategies for cultivating empathy and identifying with “the other.” Joining the affective and cognitive dimensions of empathy may require risky forms of radical pedagogy (Olson, 2006, 2007; Gallo, 1989). Evidence produced from a game situation with medical students strongly hints that empathic responses can be significantly enhanced by increased knowledge about the specific needs of others—in this case, the elderly (Varkey, 2006). Presumably, limited prior experiences would affect one’s emotional response. Again, this is a political culture/information acquisition issue that demands further study.
Third, for many people the basic incompatibility between global capitalism and the lived expression of moral sentiments may become obvious for the first time. (Olson, 2006, 2005) For example, the failure to engage this moral sentiment has radical implications, not the least being consequences for the planet. Within the next 100 years, one-half of all species now living will be extinct. Great apes, polar bears, tigers and elephants are all on the road to extinction due to rapacious growth, habitat destruction, and poaching. These human activities, not random extinction, will be the undoing of millions of years of evolution (Purvis, 2000). As Leakey puts it, “Whatever way you look at it, we’re destroying the Earth at a rate comparable with the impact of a giant asteroid slamming into the planet…” And researchers at McGill University have shown that economic inequality is linked to high rates of biodiversity loss. The authors suggest that economic reforms may be the prerequisite to saving the richness of the ecosystem and urge that “… if we can learn to share the economic resources more fairly with fellow members of our own species, it may help to share ecological resources with our fellow species.” (Mikkelson, 2007, p. 5)
While one hesitates imputing too much transformative potential to this emotional capacity, there is nothing inconsistent about drawing more attention to inter-species empathy and eco-empathy. The latter may be essential for the protection of biotic communities. Decety and Lamm (2006, p. 4) remind us that “… one of the most striking aspects of human empathy is that it can be felt for virtually any target, even targets of a different species.”
This was foreshadowed at least fifty years ago when Paul Mattick, writing about Kropotkin’s notion of mutual aid, noted that “… For a long time, however, survival in the animal world has not depended upon the practice of either mutual aid or competition but has been determined by the decisions of men as to which species should live and thrive and which should be exterminated. … [W]herever man rules, the “laws of nature” with regard to animal life cease to exist.” This applies no less to humans and Mattick rightly observed that the demands of capital accumulation and capitalist social relations override and preclude mutual aid. As such, neuroscience findings are welcome and necessary but insufficient in themselves. For empathy to flourish requires the elimination of class relations (Mattick, 1956, pp. 2-3).
Fourth, equally alarming for elites, awareness of this reality contains the potential to encourage “destabilizing” but humanity-affirming cosmopolitan attitudes toward the faceless “other,” both here and abroad. In de Waal’s apt words, “Empathy can override every rule about how to treat others.” (de Waal, 2005, p. 9) Amin (2003), for example, proposes that the new Europe be reframed by an ethos of empathy and engagement with the stranger as its core value. The diminution of empathy within the culture reduces pro-social behavior and social cohesiveness. Given the dangerous centrifugal forces of ethno-nationalism and xenophobia, nothing less than this unifying motif will suffice, while providing space for a yet undefined Europe, a people to come.
Finally, as de Waal observes, “If we could manage to see people on other continents as part of us, drawing them into our circle of reciprocity and empathy, we would be building upon rather than going against our nature.” (de Waal, 2005, p. 9) An ethos of empathy is an essential part of what it means to be human and empathically impaired societies, societies that fail to gratify this need should be found wanting. We’ve been systematically denied a deeper and more fulfilling engagement with this moral sentiment. I would argue that the tremendous amount of deception and fraud expended on behalf of overriding empathy is a cause for hope and cautious optimism. Paradoxically, the relative absence of widespread empathic behavior is in fact a searing tribute to its potentially subversive power.
Is it too much to hope that we’re on the verge of discovering a scientifically based, Archimedean moral point from which to lever public discourse toward an appreciation of our true nature, which in turn might release powerful emancipatory forces?
A highly abbreviated version of this paper appeared at Zmag (5/20/07). Helpful comments were offered by N. Chomsky, D. Dunn, M. Iacoboni, K. Kelly, S. Preston and J. Wingard. Thanks, per usual, to M. Ortiz.
Gary Olson is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science, Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.