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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Evolutionary Advantage of Empathy


I forwarded this story to a libertarian friend of mine who had no sympathy; like some of the commenters, this friend suggested the farmer should have gotten the right insurance.  If they didn’t, it sucks to be them.  “If my house burns down,” said this friend, “should I expect government to buy me a new one?” 

This friend has also told me it’s fiction that China’s rice fields are drying up, or that climate change is shrinking the glaciers that feed China’s rivers.  Climate change is pop-science, folk trying to scare up dollars so they can do pop-research and make some easy profit.  Of course, my friend’s a staunch advocate for a Free Market, though he doesn’t believe in advocating for one.  Advocacy is too much like socialism.  And clearly, China’s approach hasn’t served its interests well.

Yet, this friend lives in a society.  Tax dollars clean his streets, remove his waste and protect his property from squatters or thieves.  He, like everyone that isn’t a hermit, relies to some degree on societal collaboration.  It’s not a handout, though – it’s collective living.  Can he individually afford to buy food from abroad if there’s none available locally, due to drought?  If supply lines are completely cut, if his house burns down, if he loses the ability to support himself and provide saleable value to society, is he on his own? 

Of course he isn’t.  If his house burns down, his friends (including me) would donate items, maybe hold a fundraiser.  If he’s injured, some of our resources will go to making sure he isn’t left behind.  It would feel wrong to do otherwise.  In fact, when we see examples of people being mistreated or not supported in times of need, we get angry.  If, that is, we see them as people, like us.  Empathy, it appears, occurs in a context of commonality.  You have to recognize that another creature can experience the world in the same way you do to have compassion for them.

It’s not just us that engage in empathetic behaviour; gorillas will go so far as to dismantle traps and warn others, even other primates, of the threats traps present.  There must be an evolutionary advantage to altruistic behaviour; otherwise, it wouldn’t be so common.  Genes don’t think in terms of systems, though – sheep didn’t develop wool so that we could make wool clothes any more than sea anemone and clownfish developed a symbiotic relationship for proactively altruistic reasons.  These traits were developed for selfish gains, with the collaborative aspects being advantageous but unintended side-effects.

What, then, could be the selfish justification for empathy?  What’s in empathy for me?  Here’s a thought:

Theory of mind and empathy allow us to understand and avoid consequences that impact others within our social context.  If we say “so what” to the challenges of others, are we paying attention to avoiding those consequences ourselves?  If we feel superior/distinct/removed from our peers, what incentive do we have to learn from their mistakes?

Mel Brooks famously said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger.  Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”  Because tragedy is something that happens to us that is beyond our control; comedy happens to someone else.  If it had been you cutting your finger, lord knows it would be a result of inattention on your part.  If it had been Brooks falling in the manhole, it was because someone else didn’t cover it up, or distracted him, etc.  In war, soldiers always think it’s someone else who will get shot; in accidents, it’s always someone else that will fall victim.

On the other hand, if we empathize, we can internalize.  If we could picture ourselves in the shoes of the man falling into a sewer, we can consider causes and context and hopefully, plan to avoid such consequences ourselves.  If we can empathize with the neighbour whose house burns down, we can put ourselves in their shoes and perhaps learn how to proactively avoid that happening to us.  The act of wanting to help would be a sidebar, but a useful one.  When we are motivated, through selfish interests, to look after others, we help foster a climate where the same level of empathy gets returned to us.  Then, we can share.  Then, we can specialize.

Which brings us back to our farmer.  Government isn’t some nebulous entity that exists separate from people, any more than politicians are non-humans that don’t think and feel the way we do.  Government, ultimately, is a tool of specialization, an aggregate for collective interests.  We do want government to be there when we need it, but if we don’t proactively support government, that won’t be the case.

This is equally true for ideas as it is for financial resources.  When we starve government of ideas – or when government starves itself of ideas – we’re essentially denying our collective interests.  That’s all well and good in times of plenty, but when a crisis hits – and it always does – the only way forward is together.

Love thy neighbour – it’s more than a commandment, it’s a social imperative.  We can either live together... 

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