Evolution and Empathy
A concept which has been pondered by many over the millennia is that of good and evil in Man. Is Man born intrinsically good or evil? Important processes that occur in biological evolution contribute useful guidelines to understanding this issue.
Early life forms competed for limited resources such that the prevailing dynamic was ‘the survival of the fittest’. The next evolutionary phenomenon was one of group co-operation. This development most likely occurred as a consequence of the success and efficiency of group cooperation in securing resources for its members – the whole was more than the sum of its parts. With the development of procreation and the need for nurture, another important evolutionary milestone was reached. Intrinsically coded in the neuropsychology of the organism was the need to recognize and support a helpless and dependent offspring. This in effect is the fundamental circuitry supporting empathy. The circuitry appears to be situated in the cingular gyrus of the frontal lobe and is triggered on the basis of 'mirror neuron activity' - our brains mirror the emotional state of others so that we consequently 'feel' the mind state and situation of others.
In terms of the evolutionary heritage therefore, the human being is programmed for co-operation and empathy. This could be regarded as the inherent ‘good’ in mankind. Nurture deprivation on the other hand results in the infant narrowing down to appeasing their own needs. In its more extreme forms the pre-occupation with self-interest may suppress the intrinsic empathic circuitry and thus give rise to potentially destructive emotions insofar as other human beings are concerned. Deprivation states are associated with lower levels of serotonin and dopamine together with raised levels of adrenaline-noradrenaline. This in turn results in raised levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines which mediate chronic inflammation, underpinning many pathologies (neuro-degenerative disorders, cardiovascular illness and cancer, to name but a few). It would seem therefore that our evolutionary heritage predisposes us to act empathically and can be regarded as supporting our ‘good’ inclinations while degrees of nurture deprivation give rise to our ‘evil’ inclinations. These concepts are more profoundly illustrated when we review the underpinning neurophysiology of empathy.
Empathy expressed or experienced (mirror neuron activity) results in the secretion of the hormone-neurotransmitter oxytocin. Oxytocin in turn suppresses the area of the brain supporting fear, anxiety and rage. Oxytocin also suppresses the high levels of cortisol associated with stress and deprivation as well as suppressing pro-inflammatory mediators. Finally, oxytocin stimulates the part of the brain which mediates the feeling of personal gratification (nucleus accumbens). Empathy therefore can be considered to be a neuropsychological state which has evolved from a heritage of group co-operation and the need to nurture offspring. The empathic state is enhancing in terms of quality of life and longevity, in the context of neurobiology. The antithesis of the state of empathy are the deprivation states characterized by varying degrees of self-interest, which are associated with chemistry predisposing to illness.
I conclude therefore with the contention that empathy is a neuropsychological state. It is life-enhancing and based on identifiable evolutionary determinants. In terms of the species as a whole therefore, I believe that experiencing, identifying and promoting the state of empathy should be our primary objective if we were to be true to our heritage and our neurobiology. The mind state of empathy incorporates identifiable components including sensitivity, gratitude, clarity and motivation to value contribution. It is the recognition and application of these components which enables us to transcend the negative (evil) influences of excessive self-interest and elevates us to the resourceful state of empathy, which is our birthright.
Copyright reserved - Ian Weinberg 2016