Compassion, Intelligence, and Evolution

Reblogged from

Today I want to speak about compassion. By compassion I mean the ability to feel some other being’s pain. I say being, and not human being, because I want to venture a hypothesis that correlates compassion and intelligence. To do that, I have to look at compassion in animals.

There are different degrees of compassion. Most human beings feel compassion towards their children. A smaller subset feels compassion towards their parents. In decreasing order of frequency, human beings feel compassion towards their family, friends, reduced social group, extended social group, nation, continent and humanity as a whole.

Compassion is a fairly recent invention. For example, bacteria don’t feel compassion. They don’t feel much, in fact. Worms, fish and cephalopods also don’t seem to have much compassion either, not even towards their children. Reptiles in general don’t take care of their young: they lay their eggs and leave their offspring to fend for themselves. One may say they couldn’t care less.

Only mammals and birds seem to feel some sort of compassion, though it is mostly confined to the family unit. Mammals and birds also have the biggest brain sizes in the animal kingdom. It is probably not a coincidence: feeling compassion requires the capacity to make simulations of another living thing. But let me elaborate, because I believe the simulation point to be important.

Most living beings are capable of making some type of simulation of their environment. That’s how we make decisions: we simulate possible outcomes based on our different courses of action and we choose the one that leads to the most pleasure and the least pain. At least, that’s the basic framework. Bacteria don’t have to simulate much: when their food detectors fire, they move towards the food. That’s pretty much it. But, as the complexity in situations increases, so does the need for more accurate simulations.

Any software engineer will tell you that simulating something inorganic is millions of times easier than simulating something organic. A rock’s trajectory is easy to calculate; a sparrow’s, not so much. The capability for simulating other living things, then, requires significant processing power. Since this capability is needed for compassion, it is not surprising that only animals with highly developed brains have developed it. In fact, one may even see compassion as a by-product: as animals learned to simulate others (in order to eat them, for example) they also learned to simulate their peers, which lead to some kind of understanding that these peers also feel pain. Mirror neurons may also have evolved in this context.

Monkey surprise

A sociable animal

Monkeys are capable of compassion. Unlike other mammals, theirs extends a little further from their family and into their social group. If a chimpanzee is beat up in a fight, it is common to see another one trying to comfort it by putting its arm around it, something which may look spookily familiar. However, chimpanzees are only capable of compassion within their social group. They couldn’t care less about what happens to individuals outside it.

This is the way it works in humans, most of the time. Every time there’s a plane accident, the first we ask is “were there any people from my country?” We don’t care what happened to all of those foreigners. We want to know that our people are safe. The same thing happened recently with the Boston bombings: even though much more horrid acts take place daily in Iraq or Syria, we shrug them off without much thought, while being struck with grief with the ones that hit close to home.

However, that’s only part of the story. Some humans do feel empathy towards other people that are not in their social group. According to primatologist Frans de Waal, this kind of compassion is “a fragile experiment” being conducted by our species. That is, we are the first species to feel universal empathy. And I think this is significant, because it signals a trend from less compassion to more: from not caring about any other individual to caring about your children to caring about your family, to your social group, to every single member of your species.

Can this trend continue? As we get smarter, be it with technology or evolution, will we become even more compassionate? Is caring for the welfare of animals the next step, which is already taking place? As we get smarter, will we be able to simulate other living beings better? Will that increase our compassion? Where does this lead?

People usually see evolution (rightly) as this really cruel, blind process where the strong step on the weak. However, I find it encouraging that, even so, it seems to have led to the emergence of increasingly compassionate species. This outcome was far from obvious, given the way natural selection works. I like the idea of evolution being a blind, cruel, horrid process that somehow gives birth to a species that stops being blind and cruel. Evolution as a process that can put a stop to itself and become something better, gentler, more nurturing, more creative.

Who knows, maybe there’s still hope for us all.


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