The Evolution of Empathy

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					ON EMPATHY




    The Evolution of Empathy
    We tend to think of empathy as a uniquely human trait. But it’s something apes and other
    animals demonstrate as well, says primatologist Frans B. M. de Waal. He shows how our
    evolutionary history suggests a deep-rooted propensity for feeling the emotions of others.




                                                                                                                                                           Frans de Waal
    once upon a time, the united states
    had a president known for a peculiar facial
    display. In an act of controlled emotion,
    he would bite his lower lip and tell his
    audience, “I feel your pain.” Whether the
    display was sincere is not the issue here;
    how we are affected by another’s predica-
    ment is. Empathy is second nature to us, so
    much so that anyone devoid of it strikes us
    as dangerous or mentally ill.
        At the movies, we can’t help but get
    inside the skin of the characters on the
    screen. We despair when their gigantic ship
    sinks; we exult when they finally stare into
    the eyes of a long-lost lover.
        We are so used to empathy that we
    take it for granted, yet it is essential to
    human society as we know it. Our moral-
    ity depends on it: How could anyone be
    expected to follow the golden rule without
    the capacity to mentally trade places with a
    fellow human being? It is logical to assume
    that this capacity came first, giving rise to
    the golden rule itself. The act of perspec-
    tive-taking is summed up by one of the
    most enduring definitions of empathy that
    we have, formulated by Adam Smith as
    “changing places in fancy with the sufferer.”
        Even Smith, the father of economics, best     An example of consolation among chimpanzees: A juvenile puts an arm around a screaming adult male,
    known for emphasizing self-interest as the        who has just been defeated in a fight with his rival. Consolation probably reflects empathy, as the
    lifeblood of human economy, understood            objective of the consoler seems to be to alleviate the distress of the other.
    that the concepts of self-interest and empa-
    thy don’t conflict. Empathy makes us reach         into existence only when our lineage split           Over the last several decades, we’ve seen
    out to others, first just emotionally, but later   off from that of the apes. It must be far old-    increasing evidence of empathy in other
    in life also by understanding their situation.    er than that. Examples of empathy in other        species. One piece of evidence came unin-
        This capacity likely evolved because it       animals would suggest a long evolutionary         tentionally out of a study on human devel-
    served our ancestors’ survival in two ways.       history to this capacity in humans.               opment. Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, a research
    First, like every mammal, we need to be              Evolution rarely throws anything               psychologist at the National Institute of
    sensitive to the needs of our offspring.          out. Instead, structures are transformed,         Mental Health, visited people’s homes to
    Second, our species depends on coopera-           modified, co-opted for other functions, or         find out how young children respond to
    tion, which means that we do better if we         tweaked in another direction. The frontal         family members’ emotions. She instructed
    are surrounded by healthy, capable group          fins of fish became the front limbs of land         people to pretend to sob, cry, or choke, and
    mates. Taking care of them is just a matter       animals, which over time turned into hoofs,       found that some household pets seemed as
    of enlightened self-interest.                     paws, wings, and hands. Occasionally, a           worried as the children were by the feigned
                                                      structure loses all function and becomes          distress of the family members. The pets
    Animal empathy                                    superfluous, but this is a gradual process,        hovered nearby and put their heads in their
    It is hard to imagine that empathy—a char-        and traits rarely disappear altogether. Thus,     owners’ laps.
    acteristic so basic to the human species that     we find tiny vestiges of leg bones under the          But perhaps the most compelling evi-
    it emerges early in life, and is accompanied      skin of whales and remnants of a pelvis in        dence for the strength of animal empathy
    by strong physiological reactions—came            snakes.                                           came from a group of psychiatrists led by

    6 Greater Good Fall / Winter 2005-06
Jules Masserman at Northwestern Univer-             what is happening, and turns around,
sity. The researchers reported in 1964 in the       clenching his toes into firm fists.
American Journal of Psychiatry that rhesus
monkeys refused to pull a chain that deliv-          These observations suggest that apart
ered food to themselves if doing so gave a       from emotional connectedness, apes have
shock to a companion. One monkey stopped         an appreciation of the other’s situation and
pulling the chain for 12 days after witness-     show a degree of perspective-taking. One
ing another monkey receive a shock. Those        striking report in this regard concerns a
primates were literally starving themselves      bonobo female named Kuni, who found a
to avoid shocking another animal.                wounded bird in her enclosure at Twycross




                                                                                                                                                        Frans de Waal
                                                 Zoo, in England. Kuni picked up the bird,

Primates were                                    and when her keeper urged her to let it
                                                 go, she climbed to the highest point of

 literally       starving                        the highest tree, carefully unfolded the
                                                 bird’s wings and spread them wide open,
                                                                                                    Cognitive empathy, where one understands the
                                                                                                    other’s situation, enables helping behavior that
                                                                                                    is tailored to the other’s specific needs. In this
themselves to avoid
                                                 one wing in each hand, before throwing
                                                                                                    case, a mother chimpanzee reaches to help her


shocking
                                                 it as hard as she could toward the barrier
                                                                                                    son out of a tree after he screamed and begged
                                                 of the enclosure. When the bird fell short,
                                                                                                    for her attention.
                                                 Kuni climbed down and guarded it until
                                                 the end of the day, when it flew to safety.         the tendency in some disciplines, such

     another animal.                             Obviously, what Kuni did would have been
                                                 inappropriate toward a member of her own
                                                 species. Having seen birds in flight many
                                                                                                    as psychology, to put human capacities
                                                                                                    on a pedestal. They essentially adopt a
                                                                                                    top-down approach that emphasizes the
    The anthropoid apes, our closest rela-       times, she seemed to have a notion of what         uniqueness of human language, conscious-
tives, are even more remarkable. In 1925,        would be good for a bird, thus giving us an        ness, and cognition. But instead of trying
Robert Yerkes reported how his bonobo,           anthropoid illustration of Smith’s “chang-         to place empathy in the upper regions of
Prince Chim, was so extraordinarily              ing places in fancy.”                              human cognition, it is probably best to
concerned and protective toward his sickly           This is not to say that all we have are        start out examining the simplest pos-
chimpanzee companion, Panzee, that the           anecdotes. Systematic studies have been            sible processes, some perhaps even at the
scientific establishment might not accept         conducted on so-called “consolation”               cellular level. In fact, recent neuroscience
his claims: “If I were to tell of his altruis-   behavior. Consolation is defined as friendly        research suggests that very basic processes
tic and obviously sympathetic behavior           or reassuring behavior by a bystander              do underlie empathy. Researchers at the
towards Panzee, I should be suspected of         toward a victim of aggression. For example,        University of Parma, in Italy, were the first
idealizing an ape.”                              chimpanzee A attacks chimpanzee B,                 to report that monkeys have special brain
    Nadia Ladygina-Kohts, a primatological       after which bystander C comes over and             cells that become active not only if the
pioneer, noticed similar empathic tenden-        embraces or grooms B. Based on hun-                monkey grasps an object with its hand
cies in her young chimpanzee, Joni, whom         dreds of such observations, we know that           but also if it merely watches another do
she raised at the beginning of the last          consolation occurs regularly and exceeds           the same. Since these cells are activated as
century, in Moscow. Kohts, who analyzed          baseline levels of contact. In other words,        much by doing as by seeing someone else
Joni’s behavior in the minutest detail,          it is a demonstrable tendency that probably        do, they are known as mirror neurons, or
discovered that the only way to get him          reflects empathy, since the objective of the        “monkey see, monkey do” neurons.
off the roof of her house after an escape—       consoler seems to be to alleviate the dis-            It seems that developmentally and evo-
much more effective than any reward or           tress of the other. In fact, the usual effect of   lutionarily, advanced forms of empathy are
threat of punishment—was by arousing             this kind of behavior is that it stops scream-     preceded by and grow out of more elemen-
sympathy:                                        ing, yelping, and other signs of distress.         tary ones. Biologists prefer such bottom-up
                                                                                                    accounts. They always assume continuity
   If I pretend to be crying, close my           A bottom-up view of empathy                        between past and present, child and adult,
   eyes and weep, Joni immediately               The above examples help explain why to             human and animal, even between humans
   stops his plays or any other activities,      the biologist, a Russian doll is such a sat-       and the most primitive mammals.
   quickly runs over to me, all excited          isfying plaything, especially if it has a his-        So, how and why would this trait have
   and shagged, from the most remote             torical dimension. I own a doll of Russian         evolved in humans and other species?
   places in the house, such as the roof         President Vladimir Putin, within whom              Empathy probably evolved in the context
   or the ceiling of his cage, from where        we discover Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Brezhnev,          of the parental care that characterizes all
   I could not drive him down despite            Kruschev, Stalin, and Lenin, in that order.        mammals. Signaling their state through
   my persistent calls and entreaties. He        Finding a little Lenin and Stalin within           smiling and crying, human infants urge
   hastily runs around me, as if look-           Putin will hardly surprise most political          their caregiver to take action. This also
   ing for the offender; looking at my           analysts. The same is true for biological          applies to other primates. The survival
   face, he tenderly takes my chin in his        traits: The old always remains present in          value of these interactions is evident from
   palm, lightly touches my face with his        the new.                                           the case of a deaf female chimpanzee I
   finger, as though trying to understand            This is relevant to the debate about the        have known named Krom, who gave birth
                                                 origins of empathy, especially because of          to a succession of infants and had intense

                                                                                                             Fall / Winter 2005-06 Greater Good 7
                                                 ON EMPATHY
              DEFINITIONS

                                                 positive interest in them. But because she
The Terms of Empathy                             was deaf, she wouldn’t even notice her
                                                 babies’ calls of distress if she sat down on

W     hat does “empathy” mean exactly,           them. Krom’s case illustrates that without
      and how is it different from sympa-        the proper mechanism for understanding
thy or other emotional experiences? Some         and responding to a child’s needs, a species
scientists differ in how they use the term.      will not survive.
                                                    During the 180 million years of mam-
Below is a list of definitions of empathy and
                                                 malian evolution, females who responded
related terms that Frans de Waal compiled
                                                 to their offspring’s needs out-reproduced
with colleague Stephanie Preston for their       those who were cold and distant. Having
2002 review article, “Empathy: Its Ultimate      descended from a long line of mothers who
and Proximate Bases,” which appeared in          nursed, fed, cleaned, carried, comforted,
the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.       and defended their young, we should not be
                                                 surprised by gender differences in human




                                                                                                                                                    Dugald Stermer
Emotional contagion: The creation of a           empathy, such as those proposed to explain
matching emotional state in one individual,      the disproportionate rate of boys affected
the subject, as a result of perceiving the       by autism, which is marked by a lack of
state in another individual, the object.         social communication skills.
Sometimes, as in very young children, the
distinction is lost between the subject and
                                                    Empathy also plays a role in coop-
                                                 eration. One needs to pay close attention
                                                 to the activities and goals of others to
                                                                                                   Thebuilding
object—both are affected to a degree pre-
                                                 cooperate effectively. A lioness needs to
                                                                                                  blocks of
                                                                                                  morality
cluding appropriate helping responses.           notice quickly when other lionesses go into
                                                 hunting mode, so that she can join them
Empathy: The subject has a similar emo-          and contribute to the pride’s success. A
tional state to the object as a result of
                                                                                                  clearly
                                                                                                  predate
                                                 male chimpanzee needs to pay attention
perceiving the object’s situation. Empathy       to his buddy’s rivalries and skirmishes with
preserves the distinction between self and       others so that he can help out whenever



                                                                                                  humanity.
other. The subject’s emotional state is par-     needed, thus ensuring the political success
tially focused on the other, often resulting     of their partnership. Effective cooperation
in kind or helping behavior.                     requires being exquisitely in tune with the
                                                 emotional states and goals of others.
Sympathy: The subject feels “sorry for” the         Within a bottom-up framework, the             of our lives, until it reaches a level at which
                                                 focus is not so much on the highest levels       it becomes such a complex response that
object as a result of perceiving its distress.
                                                 of empathy, but rather on its simplest forms,    it is hard to recognize its origin in simpler
This can be arrived at without a matching
                                                 and how these combine with increased             responses, such as body mimicry and emo-
emotional response. Authors from before the      cognition to produce more complex forms          tional contagion. (See sidebar.)
1950s often use the word “sympathy” for          of empathy. How did this transformation
what is currently referred to as “empathy.”      take place? The evolution of empathy             On a leash
                                                 runs from shared emotions and intentions         Biology holds us “on a leash,” in the felici-
Cognitive empathy: Apart from being              between individuals to a greater self/other      tous words of biologist Edward Wilson,
emotionally affected, the subject cognitively    distinction—that is, an “unblurring” of the      and will let us stray only so far from who
understands the object’s predicament and         lines between individuals. As a result, one’s    we are. We can design our life any way we
situation. This implies perspective-taking       own experience is distinguished from that        want, but whether we will thrive depends
and attribution. Cognitive empathy may be        of another person, even though at the same       on how well that life fits human predisposi-
limited to the brainiest animals, such as        time we are vicariously affected by the          tions.
                                                 other’s. This process culminates in a cogni-         I hesitate to predict what we humans
humans, apes, dolphins, and elephants.
                                                 tive appraisal of the other’s behavior and       can and can’t do, but we must consider
                                                 situation: We adopt the other’s perspective.     our biological leash when deciding what
                                                    As in a Russian doll, however, the outer      kind of society we want to build, especially
                                                 layers always contain an inner core. Instead     when it comes to goals like achieving uni-
                                                 of evolution having replaced simpler forms       versal human rights.
                                                 of empathy with more advanced ones, the              If we could manage to see people on
                                                 latter are merely elaborations on the former     other continents as part of us, drawing
                                                 and remain dependent on them. This also          them into our circle of reciprocity and
                                                 means that empathy comes naturally to            empathy, we would be building upon,
                                                 us. It is not something we only learn later      rather than going against, our nature.
                                                 in life, or that is culturally constructed. At       For instance, in 2004, the Israeli Min-
                                                 heart, it is a hard-wired response that we       ister of Justice caused political uproar for
                                                 fine-tune and elaborate upon in the course        sympathizing with the enemy. Yosef Lapid

8 Greater Good Fall / Winter 2005-06
                                                                                                             HYPOTHESES

questioned the Israeli army’s plans          We like to claim the latter tendency
to demolish thousands of Palestinian         for ourselves. Yet, it will be hard to       The Limits of Empathy
homes in a zone along the Egyptian           come up with anything we like about          BY JASON MARSH
border. He had been touched by               ourselves that is not part of our evo-

                                                                                          A
images on the evening news. “When            lutionary background. What we need,              s Frans de Waal notes, it makes evolutionary
I saw a picture on the TV of an old          therefore, is a vision of human nature            sense that we more readily identify with—and
woman on all fours in the ruins of her       that encompasses all of our tendencies:      feel more protective toward—people who seem like
home looking under some floor tiles           the good, the bad, and the ugly.
                                                                                          more immediate members of our family and com-
for her medicines, I did think, ‘What           Our best hope for transcending
                                                                                          munity. What’s more, unbounded, unconditional
would I say if it were my grandmoth-         tribal differences is based on the moral
er?’” he said. Lapid’s grandmother was       emotions, because emotions defy ideol-       empathy could jeopardize a person’s mental or
a Holocaust victim.                          ogy. In principle, empathy can override      physical health. If we truly felt the pain of everyone
    This incident shows how a simple         every rule about how to treat others.        we encountered, we’d likely be incapacitated by
emotion can widen the definition of           When Oskar Schindler kept Jews out           emotional grief.
one’s group. Lapid had suddenly real-        of concentration camps during World              This seems especially true for members of “help-
ized that Palestinians were part of his      War II, for example, he was under clear      ing” professions, like teachers, police officers, and
circle of concern, too. Empathy is the       orders by his society on how to treat        physicians. “It is tremendously satisfying to just
one weapon in the human repertoire           people, yet his feelings interfered.         connect and feel for and with a patient,” said Eric
that can rid us of the curse of xeno-           Caring emotions may lead to sub-          Larson, the director of the Center for Health Studies
phobia.                                      versive acts, such as the case of a prison
                                                                                          at the Group Health Cooperative in Seattle. “But on
    Empathy is fragile, though. Among        guard who during wartime was direct-
                                                                                          the downside, it’s work. And like all kinds of work,
our close animal relatives, it is switched   ed to feed his charges only water and
on by events within their community,         bread, but who occasionally sneaked in       it can be done well and constructively, or it can be
such as a youngster in distress, but         a hard-boiled egg. However small his         done to extremes.”
it is just as easily switched off with       gesture, it etched itself into the prison-       In a recent article in the Journal of the American
regards to outsiders or members of           ers’ memories as a sign that not all of      Medical Association, Larson argues that empathy is
other species, such as prey. The way         their enemies were monsters. And then        so important to high-quality caregiving that medical
a chimpanzee bashes in the skull of          there are the many acts of omission,         students and residents should receive long-term
a live monkey by hitting it against a        such as when soldiers could have killed      training in how to perform this “emotional labor.” If
tree trunk is no advertisement for ape       captives without negative repercussions      they’re not trained properly in how to manage their
empathy. Bonobos are less brutal, but        but decided not to. In war, restraint can    emotional workload, he says, they risk burning out.
in their case, too, empathy needs to         be a form of compassion.
                                                                                              “For physicians, this could lead to cynicism and
pass through several filters before it           Emotions trump rules. This is why,
                                                                                          real job dissatisfaction,” he said. “People leave the
will be expressed. Often, the filters pre-    when speaking of moral role models,
vent expressions of empathy because          we talk of their hearts, not their brains    field because they feel it’s just too much work.”
no ape can afford feeling pity for all       (even if, as any neuroscientist will point       Under certain conditions, forms of empathy
living things all the time. This applies     out, the heart as the seat of emotions is    could jeopardize nonprofessional relationships as
equally to humans. Our evolutionary          an outdated notion). We rely more on         well. In a study of married couples, Texas A&M
background makes it hard to identify         what we feel than what we think when         University psychologist Jeffry Simpson and his
with outsiders. We’ve evolved to hate        solving moral dilemmas.                      colleagues found that some spouses would feel
our enemies, to ignore people we                It’s not that religion and culture        threatened by negative thoughts and feelings their
barely know, and to distrust anybody         don’t have a role to play, but the build-    partners had about their relationship. If they were
who doesn’t look like us. Even if we are     ing blocks of morality clearly predate       “empathically accurate” in reading those threat-
largely cooperative within our com-          humanity. We recognize them in our
                                                                                          ening thoughts, they felt less close toward their
munities, we become almost a different       primate relatives, with empathy being
                                                                                          partner.
animal in our treatment of strangers.        most conspicuous in the bonobo ape
(See sidebar.)                               and reciprocity in the chimpanzee.               Simpson said that not being attuned to those
    This is the challenge of our time:       Moral rules tell us when and how to          threatening thoughts and feelings could benefit
globalization by a tribal species. In        apply our empathic tendencies, but the       a relationship, especially when they stem from a
trying to structure the world such that      tendencies themselves have been in           spouse’s temporary bad mood. There may be noth-
it suits human nature, the point to keep     existence since time immemorial.             ing a partner can do to change those feelings, and
in mind is that political ideologues by                                                   responding to them might only make things worse.
definition hold narrow views. They are        Frans B. M. de Waal, Ph.D., a Dutch-born     But that’s not always the case, he added.
blind to what they don’t wish to see.        primatologist, is the C. H. Candler Pro-          “If it’s something you can change, something
The possibility that empathy is part of      fessor at Emory University and director      that’s going to reoccur, something that can be
our primate heritage ought to make us        of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes
                                                                                          fixed—under those conditions, it’s probably best
happy, but we are not in the habit of        National Primate Research Center in
                                                                                          to face the harsh negativity of your partner’s
embracing our nature. When people            Atlanta. This essay is adapted from his
kill each other, we call them “ani-          latest book, Our Inner Ape: A Leading        thoughts,” he said. “Take the short-term blow in
mals.” But when they give to the poor,       Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who        order to solve the problem so it doesn’t continue to
we praise them for being “humane.”           We Are (Riverhead, 2005).                    occur.”

                                                                                                        Fall / Winter 2005-06 Greater Good 9

				
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