Thursday, May 31, 2012

Compassion and empathy: as important to human evolution as the opposable thumb

Not long ago, I received a note from a friend asking if I could provide sources or insight that would place the values of compassion and empathy in historical context.  The questioner, along with two other recipients of her query, are all members of the Balaton Group.  On its website, the Group describes itself as “an international network of researchers and practitioners in fields related to systems and sustainability.”  (

I found the response from my friend, sustainability scholar-activist and Buddhist Monk, David Berry, to be particularly clear, succinct and moving.  I asked David for permission to share it with Dormgrandpop readers and he agreed.

The development of compassion and empathy predates the first humans. It is part of the evolution of animals from being entirely instinct-based to being more aware of choices -- from being entirely self-focused to including mate, offspring, siblings, pack, clan, tribe, nation . . . toward including all life and all things as a gradually expanding "we".

Bats bring food back to the cave to feed another bat that is too sick to fly. Dolphins lift a sick or injured dolphin up to the surface to breath and they have similarly saved humans. To be part of such a bat or dolphin community increases the survivability of each individual. The increasing interest in and capacity to cooperate with each other are among the supportive factors in the rise of humans. They are as important as the opposable thumb.

The presence of Empathy is an indicator of increasing awareness of interconnection and interdependence. Because it is supportive of survival, sustainability and -- let's call it awakening, it tends to increase over time on the evolutionary time scale in spite of and because of the suffering that non-empathy and non-compassion bring in the short term.

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Anonymous Brenda said...

Compassion and empathy, kindness and selflessness was always in the plan of God and certainly "increases the survivability of each individual."
But sometimes being compassionate and kind involves being firm and running counter to. Some call it "tough love."

7:34 PM  

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