What would Charles Darwin have to say about compassion?

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is the cornerstone of our modern understanding of both human and non-human origins and development. In his three major works: On the Origin of Species, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and The Descent of Man, it is possible to trace his understanding of the evolutionary nature of compassion and empathy, although he refers to these qualities in terms of “sympathy”, “moral actions” and “social instinct” in keeping with contemporary parlance. Darwin’s treatises, while complex and exploratory, do not reflect the glib shorthand of “survival of the fittest” that has since become commonplace.

Instead, Darwin’s position appears to reject the supremacy of crass self-interest, focusing instead on a range of human emotions, including sympathy for others, including those beyond our family group or species. In The Descent of Man, he wrote:

“We are … impelled to relieve the sufferings of another, in order that our own painful feelings may be at the same time relieved. In like manner we are led to participate in the pleasures of others.”

In short, Darwin’s research suggests that humans have evolved to behave compassionately or, at least, that we have the capacity to do so. Recent discoveries in neuroscience and neural-imaging support this biological basis for compassion, but it was Darwin who originally argued that “Those communities which contained the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring”. Modern Darwinism shows how humans are intimately related to all other organisms on our planet, a cognitive-emotional tonic for improved biophilia as well as kinder, more inclusive relations between human beings. Humans derive a sense of meaning from performing costly prosocial, altruistic acts and happiness from receiving such kindnesses from others. The brain has developed in a way that allows us to engage in complex indirect and time-delayed reciprocity. We can experience the positive emotions associated with compassionate action without being immediately repaid by the same individuals we help- these positive emotions breed happiness and more compassionate action.

“We are thus impelled to relieve the sufferings of another, in order that our own painful feelings may at the same time be relieved.” (from The Descent of Man)

The DCT and DIISC’s international office are based in the Shropshire Market town of Shrewsbury, where Charles Darwin was born in 1809. The DCT is also honoured to continue Darwin’s legacy through the support and patronage of his great-great-grand-daughter, Professor Ruth Padel.

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