The Birth Of An Empathic Civilization

How has empathy grown over the course of human history and can it evolve to encompass every living being?

“When we talk about building an empathic civilization, we aren’t talking about utopia. We are talking about the ability of human beings to show solidarity not only with each other but with our fellow creatures who have a one and only life on this little planet.” ~ Jeremy Rifkin

For 1500 years, the Church had the last say about human nature. And the church was very clear. The little baby is born in sin, depraved and if we want salvation we have to wait for Christ and the next world to come – end of story. The Enlightenment philosophers took on that worldview and they came up with a different equation for what human nature is all about. 

John Locke, the great political philosopher of the Enlightenment said babies are born tabular rasa, blank slate, they are not born in sin. He said however there is a predisposition to acquire property. Somebody should have caught him on that. Adam Smith said that our key nature is we are born with a drive to be autonomous and pursue our material self-interest in the market. Later in the 19th century, Jeremy Bentham said little babies are actually born with a desire to have pleasure and to avoid pain and we are driven by utilitarian desires. Charles Darwin said every organism their drive is to secure their survival by reproducing themselves. And finally the capstone of that century, Sigmund Freud  said actually little babies are born with an insatiable sexual appetite and want to extinguish their libido. Is that what it is all about? Our little babies? When that little baby came out and mom and dad looked in their eyes, is that what we were seeing? Evil, depraved, rational, calculating, detached, autonomous, self-interested, driven by materialism, and seeking to extinguish their libido? If that truly is our human nature, I suspect we’re doomed. I just don’t see anyway that human beings are going to come together and create an interconnected, interdependent, sustainable and just global economy, and address the issue of healing the biosphere if that is our human nature, do you? 

In the last 10 years, under the radar, there’s been some very interesting developments in evolutionary biology, neurocognitive science, child development, research, and many other fields which is beginning to challenge some of these long-held Shibboleths that we’ve had about human nature and the meaning of the human journey – that we are actually soft-wired for sociability, attachment, affection, companionship, and that the first drive is the drive to actually belong – it is an empathic drive.

All humans are apparently soft wired with mirror neurons so that if I am observing you – your anger, your frustration, your sense of rejection, your joy – the same neurons will light up in me as if I am having that experience myself. This isn’t all that unusual, we know that if a spider goes up someone’s arm and I am observing it go up your arm, I am going to get a creepy feeling. 

What is empathy? It isn’t just I feel your pain. When little babies are in a nursery and one baby cries, the other babies will cry in response, they just don’t know why. That’s empathic distress. Its built into their biology. Around 8 years of age, a child learns about birth and death, that they have a one and only life, that life is fragile and vulnerable, and one day they are going to die. So when a child learns that every moment is precious and that they have their own unique history, it allows the child to experience another’s plight in the same way, that that other person or other being has a one and only life, its tough to be alive, they are struggling to flourish and be, and the odds are not always good. We empathize because we felt their struggle and we show solidarity with our compassion.

So here is the question: Is it possible that human beings that are soft wired for empathic distress, is it possible we could extend our empathy to the entire human race as an extended family, and to our fellow creatures as part of our evolutionary family and to the biosphere as our common community? If it’s possible to imagine that, then we may be possible to save our species and our planet. 

We know that consciousness changes in history. The way our brain is wired today is not the way  a medieval surf’s brain would be wired and their brain wouldn’t be the same as the wiring of a forager-hunter 30,000 years ago. 

With forager-hunter societies, communication only extended to the local tribe and shouting distance. Everyone over in  the next mountain was the alien other so empathy only extended to blood ties. 

When we went to the great hydraulic agricultural civilizations, script allowed us to bring more people together and the differentiation of skills and increasing selfhood not only led to theological consciousness but empathy now extended to a new fiction: religious ties. So a new fiction: Jews start to see all other Jews as extended family and empathize with Jews. Christians start to see all other Christians as extended family and empathize with Christians. Muslims, the same. 

When we get to the 19th century and the industrial revolution and we extend markets to larger areas and create a fiction called the nation-state. All of a sudden, the Brits start to see other in Britain as extended family. The Germans start to see Germans as extended family. There was no such thing as Germany. There was no such thing as France. These are fictions. But they allow us to extend our family so that we can have loyalties and identities based on the new complex energy communication revolutions we have that annihilate time and space. 

But if we have gone from empathy in blood ties to empathy in religious association ties to empathy based on national identification, is it really a big stretch to imagine that new technology is allowing us to connect our empathy to the human race at large and the biosphere? 

We have to begin thinking as an extended family. We have to broaden our sense of identity. We don’t lose the old identities of nationhood and our religious identities and even our blood ties. But we extend our identities so we can think of the human race as our fellow sojourners and our other creatures here as part of our evolutionary family and the biosphere as  our community. 

We have to rethink the human narrative. If we are truly homoempathicus, then we need to bring out that core nature. Because if it doesn’t come out and it is repressed by our parenting, our educational system, our business practices, our government, the secondary drives come – narcissism, materialism, violence, aggression.

Empathy is the opposite of utopia – exact opposite. There is no empathy in heaven because there is no mortality. There is no empathy in utopia because there is no suffering. Empathy is grounded in the acknowledgement of death and the celebration of life and rooting for each other to flourish and be. It is based on our frailties and our imperfections. So when we talk about building an empathic civilization, we are not talking about utopia; we are talking about the ability of human beings to show solidarity not only with each other but with our fellow creatures that have a one and only life on this little planet. 

In the last 50 years, imagine how empathy has extended. When my mother was a little kid, women didn’t have the vote in the United States of America. And then we extended empathy to the disabled. And to those of different sexual preferences. And to the people of color. And now to our fellow creatures we are beginning to recognize as having rights and recognition in law. This has all happened very quickly in terms of the long history of empathy. We almost can grasp the possibility of global empathy but I think we also can grasp that we may be at the moment of extinction. It is a bittersweet irony. We may be right at the point where we get this thing together and think empathically as a species, and we may be right at that point where we can sense our own potential extinction. 

When we look back at our life, it is the moments that had that empathic connection, we feel super alive. It’s one of those moments where we actually feel transcendence. You don’t have to be religious. And we felt we were connected to this mystery called life and it makes us feel alive to be in solidarity with someone else’s struggle to be. That would make a darn good civilization if all of us felt that way. 

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