The evolution of the circle of empathy

Written by: Christoph Adami

Primary Source: Spherical Harmonics

What is the circle of empathy? Empathy, as we all know, is the capacity to feel (or at least recognize) emotions in other entities that have emotions. Many people believe that this capacity is in fact shared by many types of animals. The “circle of empathy” is a boundary within which each individual places the things he or she empathizes with. Usually, this only includes people and possibly certain animals, but is unlikely to include inanimate objects, and very rarely plants or microbes. This circle is intensely personal, however. (Psychopaths, for example, seem to have no circle of empathy whatsoever.) Incidentally, I thought I had invented the term, but it turns out that Jaron Lanier has used it before me in a similar fashion, as has the bioethicist Peter Singer. What I would like to discuss here is the evolution of our circle of empathy over time, what this trend says about us, and think about where this might lead us in the long run.

When we go way, way back in time, life was different. There wasn’t what we now call “society”, or even “civilization”. There were people, animals, and plants. And there was the sun rising predictably in the morning, and setting in the evening just as expected. But everything else was less predictable. Life was “fraught with perils” (as a lazy writer would write). Life was uncertain. What is the best mode of survival in this world?

“Trust no-one”, the X-files may exhort you, but in truth, you’ve got to trust somebody. The life (and survival) of the Lone Ranger is not predicated on loneliness; he too must rely on the kindness of strangers and companions. Life is more predictable when you can trust. But who do you trust, then? Of course, you trust family first: this is the primal empathic circle: you feel for your family, and expect they feel for you. Emotions are almost sure-fire guarantors of behavior. From this point of view, emotions protect, and make life a little more predictable.

As we evolve, we learn that expanding the circle of empathy is beneficial. When it comes to protecting the family, as well as the things we have gained, it is beneficial to gang up with those that have an equal amount to lose. “Let us forge a brand of brothers that is not strictly limited to brothers and sisters; we who defend the same stake, let us stand as one against those that thrive to tear us down”.

Thus, through ongoing conflicts, new bonds are forged. We may not be related in the familiar manner, but we are alike, and our costs and benefits are aligned. The circle of empathy has widened.

Time, relentlessly, goes on. And the circle of empathy inevitably widens (on average). Yes, don’t get me wrong, I fully understand that human history is nothing but a wildly careening battle between the forces that compel us to love our fellow man, and the urge to destroy those who are perceived to interfere with our plans of advancement. Throughout history, the circle of empathy may widen for a while, then restrict. People perceived to be different (often, in fact, perceived as inferior) may be admitted to the circle for some (sometimes even most), but just as often dismissed. Yet, over time, the circle appears to inexorably widen.

There is no doubt about this trend, really. From the family, the circle expanded to encompass the clans that were probably closely related. From those, the circle expanded to cities, city states, and finally countries. At this point it was just a matter of time until humans expressed their empathy with respect to all humankind. “We are all one”, the idealist would invariably exclaim (mindful that not everyone on Earth has evolved to be quite as magnificent, or magnanimous). Our many differences aside, the widening of the circle of empathy is palpable. The tragedy of September 11th 2001, for example, was genuinely felt to be a tragedy by the majority of people on the globe.

It is also clear that the evolution of the circle’s radius proceeds by a widening in a few individuals first, who then spend a good portion of their lives convincing their fellow humans that they ought to widen their circles just as much. Civil rights struggles and equal rights campaigns can be subsumed this way. Anti-abortion crusaders would like everyone to include the unborn fetus into their circle of empathy. Many vegetarians have chosen not to eat meat for the simple reason that they have included all animals within their circle of empathy.

Given that the dynamics of the widening of the circle on average is driven by a few pioneers who widened theirs ahead of everyone else, how far should we expect to widen our own circles? For example, I am not a vegetarian. I do empathize with animals, but like most people I know, my empathy has its limits. I generally do not kill animals, but when insects find their way into my house I consider that a territorial transgression. Given the nervous system of most insects, it is unlikely that they perceive pain in any manner comparable with how we perceive it. And this is probably the line of empathy that will most likely be drawn by the majority of people at some point in the future: if animals can perceive pain just as we do, then we are likely to include them into our circle. The more complex they are cognitively, the more likely we would have them in our circle. The trouble is, the cognitive complexity of animals isn’t easily accessible to us. We empathize with the great apes (the group of primates that, besides the gorilla, chimpanzee, and organgutan, also includes us) in part because they are so similar to us. But cetaceans (the group of animals that includes whales and dolphins) have at least as complex a cognitive system as the great apes, but appear on far fewer people’s radar.

The neuroscientist Lori Marino, for example (who together with Diana Reiss first published evidence that bottlenose dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror) has been pushing for the ethical treatment of cetaceans (and therefore for a widening of our circle of empathy to include cetaceans) using scientific arguments based both on behavioral as well as neuroanatomical evidence. She (as well as people like the lawyer Steven Wise) have been pushing for “non-human legal rights” for certain groups of animals, thus enshrining the widened circle into law. From this point of view, the recent analysis of the methods used by Japanese dolphin hunters to round up and kill dolphins is another stark reminder of how different the radius of the circle can be among fellow humans (and how culture and ethnic heritage affects it).

All this leads me back to a thought I have touched upon in a previous post: if higher cognitive capacities are associated with things we call “consciousness” and “self-awareness”, perhaps we need to be able to better capture them mathematically, and therefore ultimately make them measurable. If we were to achieve this, then we may end up with a scale that gives us clear guidelines on what the radius of our circle of empathy should be, rather than waiting for more enlightened people to show us the path. It is unlikely that this circle will encompass plants, microbes, or even insects. But there are surely animals out there who, on account of their not being able to talk to us, have been suffering tremendously. Looking at this from the vantage point of our future more enlightened selves, we should really figure out how to draw the line, somehow, sooner better than later. I don’t know where that line is, but I’m pretty sure that my line will evolve in time, and yours will too.

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Dr. Adami is Professor for Microbiology and Molecular Genetics & Physics and Astronomy at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. As a computational biologist, Dr. Adami’s main focus is Darwinian evolution, which he studies theoretically, experimentally, and computationally, at different levels of organization (from simple molecules to brains).

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