The biology of compassion: work in progress

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Colin Tudge introduces a new series of blogs on whether and to what extent the insights of modern biology can throw light on matters of morality, and hence on politics and economics 

In a nutshell, I want to argue that humanity has been led astray these past few thousand years, and particularly over the last two centuries, by the intellectuals and prophets of the western world who have shaped the modern Zeitgeist and hence have brought the whole world, human and non-human, to the brink of disaster. 

In particular, albeit largely inadvertently, theologians, clerics, and philosophers, abetted in recent centuries by scientists, economists, and politicians, have expressly argued or at least implied that human beings deep down are a bad lot, self-seeking and venal. 

Apparently, the roots of our venality run deep. Thus in Genesis 3:23-24 we are told that God kicked our first ancestors out of the Garden of Eden because they would not or could not obey one simple rule – not to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. In the light of this, in the 5th century, St Augustine of Hippo, who largely set the tone of Christianity both Catholic and Protestant, emphasised that we are forever tainted with “original sin”. The Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer of 1549 invites us to confess “our manifold sins and wickedness” and declares that “there is no health in us”. Thus stricken, we can but ask God to 

“– have mercy upon us, miserable offenders”. 

In the 17th century in The Leviathan the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that in state of nature, without what our last Prime Minister but two, Theresa May, was wont to call “strong and stable government” to keep us in line:

“The life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.  

This view of life is reinforced by the notion that Nature itself is in a state of perpetual strife. So it is that Sir David Attenborough, the world’s best-known and generally excellent informant on the natural world, is typically at pains to tell us that beneath the beautiful and tranquil surface of whatever tropical idyll he happens to have landed in, all is turmoil.  A big bug eats a little bug and then is immediately engulfed by some killjoy chameleon. As Tennyson put the matter in In Memoriam, circa 1850, it’s —  

“Nature red in tooth and claw”

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace brought science to bear. For they pointed out in the 1850s (a) that all life evolves; (b) that the principal driver of evolution is what Darwin called “natural selection”; and (c) that natural selection is driven by the need to compete for limited resources. It all implies that life, inescapably, is one long struggle. Indeed the full and little-remembered title of Darwin’s world-changing book on evolution of 1859 is: 

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life


Then in the 1860s the largely self-taught but in his day highly influential philosopher Herbert Spencer summarised natural selection as 

“The survival of the fittest”. 

He surely intended “fittest” to mean “most appropriate”, or “best adapted”, as in the modern “fit for purpose”. But “fittest” has often been construed in the other modern sense, of “strongest” or “most athletic”. I suggest that Tennyson’s, Darwin’s and Spencer’s most resonant phrases – “red in tooth and claw”, “struggle for life” (or “struggle for existence”), and “survival of the fittest” — summarize what most people, including quite a few biologists, think “evolution by means of natural selection” actually is. 

This in turn has been taken as an explanation or an excuse for humanity’s presumed venality. Life is innately and inescapably competitive and if we don’t fight our own corner with all our might we must fall by the wayside. We might not like it, but that’s the way life is. You can’t blame people for doing what is necessary. This thought it used to justify the prevailing offshoot of capitalism known as “neoliberalism”: an all-out, no-holds-barred competition in the global market for material gain. Or as Rabbi Michael Lerner puts the matter in Revolutionary Love (2019), the prevailing mindset has it that 

“To be rational is to maximize self-interest, regardless of how that impacts others.” [and that] “Looking out for number one becomes the guiding principle and appears for many to be the only rational way to live.”

And of course in this post-Enlightenment age we are exhorted above all to be “rational”; and “rational” in practice has become a matter of calculation – “efficiency”; cost-effectiveness; all measured in material terms. But love, friendship, beauty, and indeed all human values that we really care about, are not matters of calculation. So these things —  the things that really matter to us – are written off: sentimental; “romantic”; woolly-minded; “hippie”.  We cannot allow ourselves to indulge in fairy tales. Life is harsh, and we must face up to the facts. As the stiff-necked, poker-up-the-bum schoolmaster Thomas Gradrind says in Dickens’ Hard Times (1854): 

“Now, what I want is, Facts… Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else… Stick to Facts, sir!” 

The ultra-competitive market may indeed seem cruel at times but it is at least “realistic”. Life is serious and to survive we must make “tough decisions” (which invariably are tough on other people or on the natural world, but we’ll let that pass). It is irresponsible to do otherwise. The neoliberal market imitates nature and so by definition is “natural” and what is natural is good, or at least can’t be bad. 

But this, I suggest, is bad moral philosophy – we cannot legiti.mately argue that what is natural is necessarily good. Various philosophers have made this point including David Hume in the 18th century and G E Moore in the 20th. The same idea was very neatly summarised in the 1951 movie of C S Forester’s The African Queen, in which Humphrey Bogart as the dissolute Charlie Allnut says it is only human nature to get drunk, to which Katharine Hepburn as the strait-laced Rose Sayer replies: 

“Nature, Mr Allnutt, is what we were put into this world to rise above.”

Ms Hepburn was surely right. Biology and morality march to different drums. What exactly is the drum to which morality marches, and who or what is beating it, is one of the fundamental questions of metaphysics and of all religions. Which doesn’t mean that science cannot contribute to the discussion.

So where do we go from here? 

Clearly, all of the above needs teasing out. Hugely pretentiously no doubt (but why not?) I want to attempt the teasing over the next few months or as long as it takes, or until the grim reaper comes a-tapping, whichever is the sooner. I do hope many others will join in. The idea is to root out what it means to be good and to do the right thing, and how we can best supply an answer. No other question is more important, I suggest. 

The first piece in the series (it is more or less finished but is not quite ready for posting) simply points out that the conventional interpretation of “Darwinism” is simply wrong; and the politics and the economic system that claim to be informed by it are seriously misguided and should be replaced forthwith. For nature is not competitive through-and-through, as Darwin is commonly (but mistakenly) taken to have meant. Indeed, I suggest – as many others have suggested, at least in principle, that —  

“Although competition is a fact of life, the essence of life is cooperativeness.”

If it were not so, there could be no life at all.  

And this is the idea that needs to be fed into the Zeitgeist – for what would and could the world be like if we rooted the economy in the idea of cooperation, rather than in the perceived need to be ruthlessly competitive? Of course, many have addressed this, but the modern emphasis on a crude, materialist interpretation of what it means to be “rational”, has pushed the question aside. But it needs addressing afresh. 

Then, though, or at least as soon as possible, I want to try to justify the title of this entire series – The Biology of Compassion. Why compassion? Human beings are ultimately protean creatures, at least among the life-forms that we know about. We can in principle do anything we choose within the laws of physics, and adopt any mood or moral stance. So why single out compassion? What’s so special about it? More broadly, what is, or can be, the relationship between cooperativeness and compassion? More broadly still, what is the relationship between biology and morality? 

Even more broadly I want to address what in some ways is the biggest question of all, at least for the western world and hence (since the west is so influential) for the world as a whole: What price rationality? In particular we might reasonably – rationally – argue that the biggest practical questions of all are moral: not what can we do (to which the answer seems to be “more or less anything we choose”) but what should we do? What is it right to do? And why? And as David Hume pointed out in the 18th century, morality in the end is a matter of feelings. We can and should apply our rational minds to questions of morality but rationality alone – calculation – cannot provide complete and satisfying answers. As Dostoyevsky observed in Crime and Punishment (1866) 

“It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently.”

I suggest that “intelligence” in this context can reasonably be equated with “rationality”. So is it sensible – is it rational – to put all our faith in a way of thinking that clearly cannot answer life’s most important questions? What is Dostoyevsky’s “more”? Thomas Gradgrind was a caricature to be sure but he was an accurate caricature. Many people in all walks of life, including science and economics and government (and indeed in education) think like him.  They think themselves to be “no-nonsense” and “clear-headed”. They aspire, in fact, to be intellectuals. But — alas! — intellectuals get carried away on their own trains of thought. Political, economic, scientific, and, paradoxically, religious fundamentalism are the brainchildren of intellectuals. As George Orwell said in his “Note on Nationalism” in 1945, it was the intellectuals of the west, not people at large, who for a time embraced Stalinism. Despite its obvious cruelty and oppressiveness they saw it as the world’s salvation. But then, said Orwell: 

“One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” 

The same comment might be applied to neoliberalism – or indeed, more broadly, to materialism, at least as materialism is generally understood.  So, to come back to Dostoyevsky, if rationality fails us, the no-nonsense musing of the left brain, where else can we look for guidance? This takes us willy-nilly into the heady (though perhaps that’s the wrong word) regions of metaphysics, and ideas of transcendence and spirituality and indeed of religion (but religion seen as a quest, not as a fait accompli)

To go back to where we came in: it seems to me that all the many threads converge on the concept of compassion. As the Dalai Lama commented in 2017 in a talk to students at the University of California in San Diego: 

“Many remarkable individuals have called for different kinds of revolution: technological, educational, ethical, spiritual. All are motivated by the urgent need to create a better world. But for me, the Revolution of Compassion is in the heart, the bedrock, the original source of inspiration for all the others.”

Truly there’s a rich seam here to be explored. I hope you’ll join in!

Colin Tudge June 13 2024

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8 responses to “The biology of compassion: work in progress”

  1. Peter Burke avatar
    Peter Burke

    Yet again a brilliant and thought provoking article, Colin. You make us reflect on what is human nature, if indeed is such a thing, on man’s capacity for showing compassion and to value others, but also for gratuitous harm. It is intriguing to hear the origin of such phrases as “nasty, brutish and short“ and “nature red in tooth and claw.” And I know exactly what you mean when you refer to the paradox of people acting foolishly because they are members of the intelligencia. Sadly that is still an everyday occurrence. And perhaps rationality is a necessary but not sufficient attribute. Is the world improvable? I always think of the old aphorism that the optimist is the man who believes we live in the best of all possible worlds while the pessimist is the man who fears that the optimist may just be right.

  2. Ulrich Loening avatar
    Ulrich Loening

    Dear Colin,

    Absolutely sharp on the point!

    “Have we accurately diagnosed the world’s ills, and their causes?” No of course not and the daily news avoids anything to do with real solutions.

    I am continuously amazed by the myths by which we live. Homo stupidus

    Warmest wishes,

    Ulrich

  3. Chris Jones avatar

    As ever a thought-provoking read.

    Cooperation is a no-brainer and I suspect even in the most fundamentalist Neo-liberal the concept exists and is given a bit of an airing from time to time. How can a family exist without the idea?

    Of course one treats family very differently to those one does business with, that is on a different layer of the onion. Of course that is not a cast iron requirement of business or trade and has never needed to be, but our distorted and imperfect markets encourage the worst excess of neo-liberal thinking. This is manifest in our food system, where a very few buyers purchase the vast majority of the food from the tens of thousand producers: this is not a market, but it is the way the vast majority of our primary food stuffs are traded before it reaches the table of the benighted consumer. It perfectly describes the Neoliberal idea that money trumps everything always and devil take the hindmost.

    I think it works because for a host of reasons our food producers have been separated from the final consumers (Godawful description of people) and that is not going to change wholesale because the current system is so useful and convenient for so many. But despite convenience and utility we have many/most food producers on a razors edge of profitability, and many malnourished customers. Where is there room for compassion in all this?

    This is not a very coherent response but I hope an honest one. I don’t discount the value of compassion, indeed its primacy but I feel it doesn’t have much weight once we are working beyond the community level. I think it will come, slowly, mainly because there is no workable alternative.

  4. Carol Hirne avatar
    Carol Hirne

    As ever- thought provoking and inspiring. Thank you.

    Re Zeitgeist: Zeitgeist is interesting….I’ve been using this term for some time now to explain the rise of mental health problems. As I see it the Zeitgeist currently is one of doom, gloom, downright distrust for those ‘authorities’ that my parents used to call ‘they’…in phrases like ‘they know best’, ‘they’ll see you right’… the sheer effrontery, arrogance of those grasping wealth power and influence has seen to that, together with an education system that does not teach philosophy, and the loss of Christian values without their being replaced.
    It has also become difficult to escape the torrent of information now available in the media, and because it is concomitantly difficult for the lay person to extract the ‘truth’ (which is a many headed hydra), it is easy to dismiss it ALL as rubbish, fake news, etc and hence perhaps fall back on and one’s own personal particular prejudices without reference to any evidence.
    The negative feedback loop is clear – inequality and division in society. Hence the disturbing rise in the toxic far-right mentality – which we are told is now rapidly on the rise in Europe etc. Scare tactics? a person could be excused for feeling fear at such predictions. And fear is the enemy of compassion. Physically it tightens us and makes us rigid – as it also does psychologically and emotionally. None of which are conducive to co-operation. If we don’t know where or who /what the enemy is, everything and everyone becomes a potential enemy.

    Re facts – or evidence – I agree that we cannot base our decisions and hence actions on ‘facts’ alone. Anyway- What facts? Who produced them? What hidden interests do ‘they’ have in these particular facts? When I was at school in the 60s, I was lucky enough to attend a forward thinking school; we had a weekly couple of hours’ lesson in which we explored logic, argument, thinking and prejudice, and were asked to analyse writings such as newspaper articles, exerpts from books, etc to see beneath the so-called argument, to where false logic had laid its hidden traps for the unwary. As a result I have hopefully maintained a healthy scepticism about politicians and news media.
    Even so, I still think I can be taken in by my own predilections. As Naomi Klein in ‘This Changes Everything’ says, basically, we ALL are prey to our own (largely unconscious) likings and dislikings and hence can fabricate our very own house with no foundations. I know, for example, that I turn the radio off when a certain party politician speaks, or a neo-liberal professor spouts what I deem rubbish and lies. But there is a certain element of rightful-thinking self-preservation in the doing so…..
    Over the years I came up against various authorities, ie the NHS, Police, CPS, HSE, in my fight for the truth about an untimely and unnecessary (Coroner’s verdict) death in my family. The lengths of obfuscation and subterfuge, (downright lying), the lacunae (wriggle room) in the law that all these organisations were prepared to exploit to avoid simply saying: ‘Yes, we got it wrong. What can we do to make sure we don’t do it again?’ was jaw-dropping.
    I feel that we bring this on ourselves too – the system as our society lives it tends towards being a blame culture. And I suggest that is also a contributor to our not being compassionate to others’ genuine mistakes etc. The statement most eminences grises trot out in public is that ‘it’s not our fault’ and dig a hole that ends up being farcical in the contortions needed to evade blame (mixed mataphors here, sorry). And this is surely because our legal system and americanised ideas of litigation, and, here it comes again, promote material gain in the form of compensation. So, money is the only value we have left?

    Underlying all the above, I suggest, is that if we can’t forgive ourselves and be kind to ourselves first and foremost, how can we be compassionate to others?!

    Cooperation: I like the idea of citizens assemblies. I like the idea that the people who are at the ‘coalface’ have an intimate knowledge of what matters, even if they don’t necessarily agree on what needs to be done to address agreed problems. How can a person who considers the greatest deprivation in his life as a child was not having Sky TV have any compassion, understanding, or even basic awareness of, the people he has contracted to look out for? But of course, that wasn’t actually mentioned in the contract as he perceived it….
    The crux of citizens assemblies remains the method of member selection and the information provided to them. And a government’s willingness to listen!

    Re materialism and fear: I am ashamed at how many objects I possess. And I don’t possess that many compared to some…..
    But its all relative, and I go back to my hiking through the Transkei a decade ago, where the communities I stayed in had little more than a cooking pot, a bed, and a vegetable patch. The children made toys out of sticks and grass and other natural materials. In your book you mention the concept of – to paraphrase – ‘what is the least I need to have a satisfying life that sustains me and the environment?’ Yes, yes and yes. Not just Schumacher but Erich Fromm in his ‘To Have or To Be’ address this issue. If I remember rightly Fromm opines that the more you have the more you fear it can be taken away from you….and here we are back at the concept of ‘fear’ as opposed to ‘love’.
    When I did my 4 year Shiatsu training about 35 years ago in Wales, part of the course was Zen practice – mindfulness and meditation. We were asked to perform a variety of interesting ordinary daily activities, in such a way that revealed our prejudices and preconceived ideas, mostly directed towards how we engaged with others; I became very conscious of my fears and anxieties and why I behaved ‘normally’ the way I did…the outcome generally was a delightful conversation and a feeling of connectedness with someone who ordinarily I would go out of my way to avoid. It broke down a lot of unconscious
    barriers.

    “…no ordinary man could be such a fool.”
    Unfortunately I can’t quite agree here. When someone in the street is interviewed by a roving reporter, presumably on the basis of being stopped at random and being an ordinary person, and says “My mate Boris will sort it”, I lose all hope. Of course, I have no way of knowing if this person was precisely targeted so that the impression given was manipulated….
    Deliberately, I surmise, governments have skewed the education system over the past couple few decades so that it has encouraged an approach to life,l with no questioning, no challenging – in short, no thinking.
    And precisely because doubt is now possibly the new rationale, it is even more important, essential even, to get together in random groups to thrash ideas and actions out. The idea of ‘random’ being perhaps the most important, so that the members of the group cannot look to necessarily being colluded with in a perception, but must be prepared to back up their thinking. It takes a brave spirit to stand up alone and say I don’t agree, and that’s the sort of spirit we need too.

  5. MP Andreoni avatar
    MP Andreoni

    Dear Colin, I am always impressed by how well read and thoughtful your writings are, and it feels daunting to try and comment, but I will jot down some thoughts you inspired. First, I guess compassion requires acknowleding one’s vulnerability, and as you powerfully argue, our societies are geared to ignore our own vulnerability, nay to overcome it, eradicate it from society, destroy anyone and everything that reminds us of it. That at least is what I learnt in the current pandemic. It is the only possible explanation for the failure to adopt broadly available measures to protect people, even the most vulnerable at their most vulnerable (ie in schools, homes for the elderly, hospitals), the only reason for the increasingly aggressive behaviour directed at people still wearing masks or otherwise asking to be protected. Rather than admitting our vulnerability, we are tricking ourselves into thinking that a potentially lethal and highly disabling virus circulating among us will only hit the vulnerable, make our societies stronger by culling the weak, while we – the strong – can carry on as usual. That same attitude appears to me to transpire in our approach to climate change, without mentioning the very worrying rise in fascism all over the workd. But that’s a lot of doom and gloom that does not go with your general very optimistic outlook, so I will end on a positive note. There appers to be a counter trend in both research and science communication, for example that which highlights the collaborative behaviour of plants and other organisms in their environments, as for example in books like ‘Entangled Life’ by M. Sheldrake (who I really enjoyed listening to at ORFC) or ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ by P. Wohlleben. In the social sciences too, all the agroecology research or even books such as the bestseller ‘Humankind, a Hopeful History’ by R. Bregman higoghting that humanity too, in the everyday actions among the common people, might collaborate more that it aspires to fight

    1. Carol Horne avatar
      Carol Horne

      Yes! Interesting re cooperation- also scientists like Stefano Mancuso (The Revolutionary Genius of Plants) , Lynn Margulis (The Symbiotic Planet), and, on a lighter note Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire).
      We have much to learn.
      Just one further thought- humbleness might include putting ourselves into the ‘web’ of life instead at the ‘top’ of the tree. It is this rather arrogant mindset that seeks to put us above – hence more important- all other forms of life; and can/does result in the actions we take without thought or mindfulness against the existences of other life.
      I like the idea of legal personhood for nature, eg rivers, that some indigenous groups have exacted around the world. But I rather think we now have in the West no similar basis for being able to follow their example!

  6. Carol Horne avatar
    Carol Horne

    Just saw this article : https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/nature-legal-personhood/
    This would be a good start in co- operation, asking nature ‘stakeholders’ to work together to establish a legal framework in UK- wildlife trusts, soil association, real farming, permaculture, Green Party etc etc.- could be quite exciting.
    I note from the article that there’s a similar movement to the NZ Whanganui River personhood success now taking shape in France ref the River Loire….

  7. Jennifer Scott avatar
    Jennifer Scott

    The notion of nature “red in tooth and claw” and the rejection of the more sociable and endearing aspects of humanity as “not nature”, is indeed absurd. You are right to point out how different groups are trying to control the narrative. I agree that the narrative they are pushing is self-serving and detrimental to our survival, and that the way to regain control is to point out the flaws in their arguments and to draw attention to their motives.

    Frans de Waal has done a lot to show just how flawed the notion is that aggression in animals, including humans, is due to our biological makeup, while compassion and cooperation are not. It seems clear that human beings are also inherently cooperative and compassionate and that we have evolved to be so.

    Compassion probably evolved as an important component of primate social behaviour, for those species that live in social groups where everyone knows each other, as an adaptation that increases survival odds. While you might challenge the idea that non-human primates, or even other animals, are capable of compassion (though see de Waal’s books, where he sites many anecdotal examples), there is clear evidence of compassion in the hominid fossil record, where you start to see considerable evidence of caring for group members that have been injured and are no longer able to forage or hunt. There is fossil evidence of individuals surviving injuries that would normally be fatal, and living for many years, despite being crippled, which they could only do if others were caring for them.

    It is a little more difficult to make the case for non-human primates, since such evidence is limited to individual anecdotes. When I observed gorilla social groups at Howletts Wild Animal Park, my overall impression was that the gorillas cared for each other as a family, but the dominance hierarchy and parent-offspring relationships appeared to be the primary motivation behind most social interactions. For example, in each group, I observed that the highest-ranking females resented the youngest, lowest-ranking female and made her life hell on a daily basis. Not much compassion there. And yet one day I saw four older adult females and their young, defend the lowest ranking female in their group from the dominant silverback male, for one full hour, when he was in a bad mood and wanted to take it out on her. Every time he tried to charge her, the other females and their young formed a protective group around her and his efforts were thwarted. Was that compassion?

    Sometimes though the gorillas seemed completely lacking in compassion. One day one of the adolescent females in another group was injured, and was unable to walk normally. To my horror, all the other adolescents in the group who usually got on very well with her, took advantage of her condition to harass her throughout the entire day. At the time I thought this was a good example of how gorillas lack compassion because it seemed to me that humans would be more considerate and less likely to pick on a group member like that as soon as they are down. But is this true? Consider how human adolescents can behave towards each other!

    Compassion is complicated. If a situation requires compassion, but you don’t display any, does that mean you are not capable of compassion? For humans, of course, the answer is no. We know human beings are capable of compassion, and if specific humans fail to show it for a particular situation, we do not then say: this means humans are not capable of compassion. Yet that’s often how we respond when we fail to see compassion in other animals. For example, if the older female gorillas harass the younger female, day after day, it’s easy to believe gorillas have no compassion. Yet we know that in people, deciding whether to show compassion depends on all kinds of other variables. Perhaps this is true for gorillas too. For example, for female gorillas, a higher rank in the dominance hierarchy is very important to survival, or even for comfort. Higher rank means less stress, greater health, more food, and more surviving offspring. This being so, a female gorilla may be capable of compassion towards a lower-ranking female, but may choose not to behave compassionately because it’s more important to make sure that the lower-ranking female knows her place. If you were a gorilla, this would be obvious. Instead, as a human watching them, all you can see is how mean the high-ranking females are to the low-ranking female and then conclude that gorillas are incapable of compassion.

    But what about the example where the higher-ranking females supported the lowest ranking female against the silverback male? Higher ranking females usually do not support the lowest ranking female because they get no benefit from doing so. The fact that they did support the low-ranking female is what makes this a very likely case of compassion. Perhaps gorillas are capable of compassion, but they will only be likely to show it if their own interests are not at stake.

    I think the same can be said for human compassion. Humans are clearly capable of compassion, but for the most part are more open to be compassionate for others’ plight when they feel personally safe, i.e., as long as they believe that their own interests are not compromised. This would suggest that compassion mostly depends on a cost-benefit assessment. So, Colin, I think this means that if one wants to bring out our compassionate side, one needs to understand that compassion depends on an internal feeling of personal safety.

    Returning to the idea of ultra-competitive markets being “natural”, and cooperation and compassion being “sentimental”, “romantic” and “woolly-minded” and not “natural” because we have to guilt-trip ourselves into behaving nice, I agree that this perspective is flawed. An evolved capacity for empathy and compassion may still require cultural strategies and cues to shape the way in which we are compassionate, i.e., according to the cultural expectations of any particular society. This is the case for a considerable number of evolved human traits, such as language, tool building, tool use, subsistence practices, etc. so it does not stretch credibility to suggest that it is true for societal expectations regarding compassion. So for example, guilt-tripping could be our society’s way of encouraging specific gregarious behaviours. This would explain why theologians, clerics and philosophers may feel the need to push the idea that deep down, we are a bad lot — they can use this as an incentive to behave better. As Frans de Waal puts it:

    “Despite its fragility and selectivity, the capacity to care for others is the bedrock of our moral systems. It is the only capacity that does not snugly fit the hedonic cage in which philosophers, psychologists, and biologists have tried to lock the human spirit. One of the principal functions of morality seems to be to protect and nurture this caring capacity, to guide its growth and expand its reach, so that it can effectively balance other human tendencies that need little encouragement.”
    (See de Waal, 1996, “Goodnatured: the Origins of Right and Wrong in humans and other Animals”, p.86: Sympathy.)

    So in other words, just because we need moral guidance and strategies such as guilt to keep us in line, it does not necessarily follow that aggressive competition and self-interest are “natural”, while empathy and compassion are not. In fact, the opposite is true – compassion (enabled by empathy) has evolved as a vitally important means of controlling aggressive impulses so as to minimize any possible damage to relationships that can result from unrestrained aggressive behaviour. There are many examples in different species in which behavioural rituals, visual signals, vocalizations, etc. serve that role. It does not seem a long stretch to suggest that compassionate restraint on aggression and consideration of others evolved in part for the same reason. So I would argue, Colin, that biology and morality do not “march to different drums”.

    Returning to the idea that humans are basically “a bad lot”, it makes sense that theologians and clerics might want to push that idea, but why would scientists, economists and politicians?

    You suggest that compassion is “natural” and is our preferred position and that this idea “needs to be fed into the Zeitgeist”; and you ask, “ for what would and could the world be like if we rooted the economy in the idea of cooperation, rather than in the perceived need to be ruthlessly competitive?” Fortunately, you are not the only one thinking along such lines. In The Alternative: How to Build a Just Economy, the American writer and teacher Nick Romeo shows that Margaret Thatcher was wrong to suggest that “there is no alternative” to the market-led, neoliberal economy. He points out that for the past 80 years or so, many leading economists and business leaders have been deliberately pushing economic ideas on students of economics and on the world at large that “lack evidence and create political catastrophe”. The economic philosophy they have been pushing argues that: “Private markets are always more efficient than public ones; investment capital flows efficiently to necessary projects; massive inequality is the unavoidable side effect of economic growth; people are selfish and will only behave well with the right incentives.” But Romeo argues that these ideas are flawed, and that economists and politicians are pushing these ideas for personal gain. Fortunately, more recently, a number of economists have been challenging the established (flawed) view promoted by such mainstream economists, and offering better, more sustainable alternatives, which he lays out in this book.

    It sounds like you may be blaming intellectuals for our current predicament, Colin? Yet, new and creative ideas come out of intellectual hubs as well as from non-intellectual sources.
    I would argue that political power is the problem, as people’s thinking tends to get more rigid the higher the cost of being seen as “wrong” (such as ridicule and falling out of favour). As with those female gorillas, there is more political incentive to conform, and less incentive to be flexible and open-minded — or even compassionate in their thinking – when people perceive the political environment to be hostile. It is often argued that creative ideas are more likely to emerge out of intense and cut-throat competition. But maybe the reverse is true. Perhaps creative ideas would flourish more in a more compassionate environment.”

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