Empathy, Evolution and Consciousness

The figures move a bit with the years of research, but on the evidence it is fair to say the universe is a little under fifteen billion years old. The first vestiges of life on earth seemed to appear some one and a half billion years ago. Hominids have been around for less than ten million years. Consciousness, our ability to be aware of our thinking and thus a capacity to produce a theatre of mind, appears to be less than a hundred thousand years old. Indeed some researchers believe consciousness is a very recent development, maybe only a few thousand years old. Humanity as we know it is a very recent development in evolutionary time. We are mere infants evolving into something more complex. Our naivety and inexperience as a race are a sign of our immaturity.

But we are making progress. Despite all the angst about our selfishness, insularity and xenophobia we are surprisingly compassionate. Religion and philosophy are even more recent developments. All the great religions have evolved in less than three thousand years. It is a hopeful sign for the future that all these religions shared the common theme of compassion. (It is a symbol of our immaturity that rather than use these religions as instruments of good, some of us have chosen in our fear and lack of awareness, to use them as cudgels to beat each other with.) [Those wishing to pursue this notion further would be well advised to read the Introduction to the Bhagavad-Gita (Translation of Bhagavad-Gita by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood.) by Aldous Huxley. Huxley outlines what he calls “The Perennial Philosophy” which are the four major themes that dominate the major religions.]

It was not so long ago that evolutionists would not have admitted compassion as a driver of human activity. It seemed inimical to the “survival of the fittest”. And yet modern evolutionary psychologists have been able to establish the benefits of compassion and altruism to the survival of the species.

Over the past twenty thousand years or so, the forward march of spiritual development, artistic skill and culturally mandated, unselfish care of the weak, has been inexorable.

In the last few decades there was much scientific argument that our genes were “selfish” and therefore we were only disposed to help ourselves or those closely related to us. This is patently wrong and evolutionary biologists have now shown how altruism is a useful force in propagating the species. It is amazing how the separation cry a baby makes when deprived of mother moves mostly everyone who hears it. Indeed the Dalai Lama has insisted that “Basic human nature is compassionate”.

Even a country like the United States of America, which has more international ambitions than most, still manages to spend twice as much caring for the sick than it does on its defence budget.

As I write this the news is full of earthquakes in Indonesia and a Tsunami in Samoa. Hundreds of caring Australians are being mobilised to help the victims in their hour of need. Fund raising ventures are being initiated to provide support. No doubt many of you will be dipping your hands in your pockets to support people you will never know, of different race in far off countries. Why? – because you have the capacity to empathise with another human being. You know that however different they may appear because of race, nationality, religion, culture or circumstances you share your humanity with them.

Dare we imagine, as Teilhard De Chardin, the French Palaeontologist and Jesuit Priest, believed, that evolution is pulling us toward what he called the “Omega Point”? He talked about the process of complexification which enabled matter to not only attain consciousness of itself but higher levels of consciousness as it evolves. At the Omega Point all consciousness aggregates again, as the One which is God. Obviously the further we approach that point the easier it is to align with others. Love and empathy grow as our degree of separation diminishes.

Well, does it all matter? Shouldn’t I be more concerned with climate change, the prospect of nuclear war or the advance of terrorism than with evolving spirituality? In the end these malaises themselves are manifestation of our inadequate spiritual development and I suspect their solution will only be achieved when more and more of us come to that realisation that at the core of our beings we all are One.

Chapters 3 & 17 of “Augustus Finds Serenity” have more to say on this issue.

4 Replies to “Empathy, Evolution and Consciousness”

  1. I read recently something by Sam Rutigliano ” You cannot live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you”, as you say a view shared by the wisdom of all major religious thinking. Ted, I share your hope consciousness is evolving to realise this essential truth (given our capacity – in our ignorance/immaturity – to annihilate ourselves in the meantime).

  2. I seem to have missed this thread in my previous readings Ted, so this is a late comment.

    I am interested in the concept that evolution supports altruism. I have trouble accepting this. To me it is only traits that support the passing on of our DNA that are supported by evolution. I can not see how evolution can support the concept of the strong sacrificing themselves for the weak. In fact I’d go as far as to say that supporting the weak to allow them to pass on their DNA is a contravention of the evolutionary concept and ultimately will result in a weaker species physically.

    There is also another way that I think we can look at evolution though. I am starting to think that Darwinian evolution may have pretty much run its course for our species. We have evolved to the point where we care for the weak rather than eat them. We have welfare systems, invitro fertilisation, sperm donors and surrogate mothers for gay couples, caesarean section births, ground breaking operations for congenital birth defects and so on. All this is contrary to evolution and at least as far as Darwinian Theory is concerned resulting in a weaker species. It is a very real possibility that in as little as a few thousand years we may no longer be able to reproduce without medical intervention. This is therefore not evolution at a DNA level as our genetic line is becoming weaker (my opinion only).

    I do still believe there is a positive evolution occurring though but it is not at a DNA level. Through institutionalised education we are at an intellectual level evolving at a huge rate. This is different from Darwinian evolution and my own theory (at least I have not seen anyone else write about it) so may be full of holes. I believe that this intellectual evolution is the evolution of society not the individual and it is the intellectual knowledge and beliefs of our society that are passed on through education that have become the new DNA of our society. This DNA is just as capable of changing and changes that support the success of our society (not individuals) are re-enforced while changes that are negative are removed. This can happen very quickly and so can this evolution therefore. The enormous societal change we are struggling with as individuals at the moment I suggest is the result of this.

    I am not sure if this fits in with any of the literature around evolution or not. I have not read much on the topic. How altruism fits in with Darwinian evolution though intrigues me, because I can’t see the fit. I’d be interested to hear about it. Perhaps in a future blog 🙂

  3. Greg, there is a deal of literature in support of the thesis that altruism supportss survival. It was only after the advent of game theory and the development of large computing processing power that scientists were able to make sense of the complex interactions of human societies. The first paper in support of this was written by Robert Trivers in 1971 and published in The Quarterly Review of Biology. More recent studies by such evolutionary psychologists as Robert Wright (Author of “The Moral Animal”) have reinforced the concept.

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