Evolution or Revolution?: A Darwinian Take On Compassion

In our quest to understand empathy as a pure and fundamental component of emotional intelligence, it’s necessary to make the comparison between empathy and compassion. In my recent article Reconsidering Empathy: The Neuroscience of Compassion, I clinically differentiated between the two words as acts. I even entertained the notion that compassion is the more evolved of the two since it builds upon empathy while also releasing the preferred neurochemicals for the retention of happiness and optimism.

It appears that compassion is empathy PLUS an unmistakable motivation to help the individual in crisis. And here’s a juicy twist: This impulse is evolutionary. Unbeknownst to many, Darwin himself was a noteworthy proponent of compassion. That’s right! The “survival of the fittest” guy later detailed how compassion is necessary for a species’ survival. I was surprised and delighted to discover this, too (Another surprise is that “survival of the fittest” was not Darwin’s line, but that of English philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer after having studied Darwin’s writings on natural selection.) Let’s take a closer look at this (r)evolutionary concept, shall we?

Channeling The Bodhisattva

In Charles Darwin’s 1871 book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, he provides groundbreaking insights about the place of suffering and the place of compassion. He refers to the concept of “maternal instinct” to explain why a mother will not hesitate to rescue her own infant from danger even when that means exposing herself to that same threat. Darwin then reasons that natural selection would favor those who showed compassion:

“…In however complex a manner this feeling may have originated, as it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one another, it will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

While Darwin was onto something radical for his time, he was in a way “rediscovering” a concept that Buddhists had already detailed in ancient writings. For example, the words Darwin uses in a passage in Descent of Man, “all sentient beings”, is an exact translation from Tibetan and Sanskrit description of the highest extension of compassion by a Bodhisattva (a Buddhist saint). In fact, among the world’s major religions, embracing all living beings with compassion is unique to Buddhism. Now, I would advise against jumping to conclusions about Darwin having “borrowed” those words. When we study the timeline closely, it’s revealed that Darwin wasn’t introduced to Buddhism until five years after he wrote them (remember, there was no internet in 1871).

Extra Care Needed

What Darwin doesn’t write about and the Bodhisattva may not have realized, but the more contemporary professor of psychology, Dacher Keltner speaks about is how humans evolutionarily developed this compassion. As it turns out, once we’re born we humans take more time than any other species to become independent. Think about it. Most species of duck leave the nest immediately after hatching; At 5 months of age, a chimpanzee can sit up on its own. By contrast, some humans still live at home after 30 years!

But on a more serious note, when you consider our human proportions as newborns, one aspect stands out: Our heads are disproportionately large, thanks to the relatively recent development of our prefrontal cortex, or thinking brain. As a result, it takes longer for us to hold up our own heads as babies (perhaps both figuratively and literally). This prompted evolution to outfit parents with a magic dose of compassionate “care dust”, without which our species might not continue to survive and develop.

So now that we have a working feel for why compassion is evolutionary and amounts to a healthier mindset than empathy, why does it seem that so many people around us aren’t compassionate? And how do we build compassion for others? It’s not only Tara Brach who believes that compassion is our evolutionary potential. The reason, as I will explore in my follow-up article, is also an evolutionary roadblock— a much more recent roadblock to our capacity for compassion. Here’s a hint: We humans need to do some counterintuitive work before we can be truly compassionate, and this vital need challenges the norms of modern society’s expectations.