Evolving empathy

The following post is reproduced from a response to Professor Raymond Tallis’s column in the Jan/Feb edition of Philosophy Now Magazine

Dear Editor:

I was dismayed, reading Raymond Tallis’s column last week, to see him misrepresent the state of the science on animal empathy. Tallis inaccurately states “the nearest that animals come to experiencing empathy is better described as emotional contagion, and is typified by terror spreading through a herd like fire.” His Wellcome Trust debate opponent, Frans de Waal has spent many years and many books demonstrating how several sophisticated layers of empathy have evolved on top of the “global empathy” of which panic is one example:

  • The first and most important development are the close affective ties that bond mammalian mothers and their kin, enabling nuture for protracted periods.
  • The second is the consolation behavior that has evolved in dogs and other social mammals, where stereoptyped comforting behavior is offered to distressed conspecifics.
  • The third is the truly proto-moral capacity for “targeted helping” demonstrated by the most cognitively complex social mammals, in which individual animals offer tailored assistance to conspecifics in need of help. This last capacity arrives in constellation with a wide array of proto-sentient capacities such as Theory of Mind, Mirror Self Recognition, and tool-use.

One wonders how Tallis can believe human beings ever developed complex cognition, empathy and ethics without these intervening evolutionary stages! Professor Tallis is right to protect ethics from simplistic readings across from biology, but is perhaps too enthusiastic to demarcate human beings from our hominoid and mammalian cousins. Homo sapiens have certainly gained a lot of mileage out of our capacities for language and for forward planning, but if these recent evolutionary adaptations have allowed us to see further than other species, it is because – biologically speaking – we were standing on the shoulders of giants.

Modern moral philosophy, evolutionary psychology and moral neuroscience should form a natural trinity – especially for the humanist – that philosophers ignore at their own and society’s peril: their own inasmuch as they risk making their discipline anachronistic and redundant, and society’s inasfar as they fail to inform and interpret the politically and socially influential discoveries in these sibling sciences.


Damien Morris of www.moralmenagerie.com

London, UK

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