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Research on Human Nature Is Cause For Optimism

'We have a pending fortuitous marriage of science and morality of the most profound sort.''

The non-profit Edge Foundation recently asked some of the world's most eminent scientists, ''What are you optimistic about? Why?'' Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni cited the new experimental work into the neural mechanisms that reveal how humans are hard-wired for empathy.Recall that empathy is more than compassion or sympathy with another's situation. Empathy requires being able to ''put oneself in another's shoes,'' make a distinction between self and other, and then act on that perception. Empathy recognizes the other's humanity.

We now know from brain imaging and psychological experiments that the same brain circuits are mobilized upon feeling one's own pain and the pain of others. We know that separate neural processing regions then free up the capacity for an appropriate response. And scientists at the National Institutes of Health have discovered that altruistic acts activate a primitive part of the brain, producing a pleasurable response. Morality appears to be hard-wired into our brains.

Overwhelming evidence also indicates that the roots of prosocial behavior, including moral sentiments like empathy, precede the evolution of culture. Some 40 years ago, the celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall wrote about chimpanzee emotions, social relations, and ''chimp culture,'' but experts remained skeptical. That's no longer the case. According to the famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal, ''You don't hear any debate now.'' The feelings of empathy identified in monkeys and apes are both the roots and counterpart to human morality, a natural inheritance from our closest evolutionary relatives.

And, following Darwin, sophisticated studies within biology suggest that large-scale cooperation within the human species, including with genetically unrelated individuals within a group, was favored by group selection. There were clear evolutionary benefits in coming to grips with others.


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Because morality has biological roots and empathy is at its center, we have a pending fortuitous marriage of science and morality of the most profound sort. Of course the most vexing problem that remains to be explained is why so little progress has been made in extending empathy to those outside certain in-groups. Given a global society rife with violence, why doesn't our moral intuition produce a more peaceful world?

Here I tend to agree with Iacaboni's suggestion that externally manipulated, massive belief systems, including political ideologies, tend to override the unconscious, pre-reflective, neurobiological traits that should bring us together. For example, the fear-mongering of artificially created global scarcity may attentuate our empathic response. Another is the military's refusal to allow putting a face on U.S. wounded and dead soldiers in Iraq. As Prof. Robert Jensen puts it, ''The way we are educated and entertained keep us from knowing about or understanding the pain of others.'' This all conspires to make it harder to get in touch with our moral faculties and benefit from some valuable insights flowing from the new research on empathy.

First, the insidiously effective scapegoating of human nature that claims we are only motivated by greedy, dog-eat-dog, individual self-interest is now scientifically undermined. This rationalization for predatory behavior is transparently false. Second, recent research indicates that economic inequality is linked to high rates of biodiversity loss. Scientists from McGill University suggest that economic reforms may be the prerequisite to saving the richness of the ecosystem and urge that ''If we can learn to share the economic resources with fellow members of our own species, it may help to share ecological resources with our fellow species.'' It's entirely consistent to draw more attention to the potential for inter-species empathy and indeed, eco-empathy.

Finally, as de Waal implores, ''If we could manage to see people on other continents as part of us, drawing them into our circle of reciprocity and empathy, we would be building upon rather than going against our nature.'' An ethos of empathy is an essential part of what it means to be human. Is it too much to hope that we're now on the verge of discovering a scientifically based, Archimedian moral point from which to lever public discourse toward an appreciation of our real moral sentiments, which in turn might release powerful emancipatory forces?

Gary Olson

Gary Olson

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. His most recent book is Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain (NY: Springer, 2013.) Contact:

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