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The Science of Compassion: An Evolutionary Perspective

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By: Adam Snider and Nicholas Bruss

Compassion may be defined as the tendency to notice suffering and have the desire to alleviate it, within other people, oneself, or other lifeforms. While some evolutionary biologists have argued that compassion is beneficial to a species, others argue that compassion is an evolutionary feature that is actually counter-productive to individual survival and may just be a fluke. Goetz et al. (2010) investigated compassion’s role in biological evolution more closely. They concluded that it is a uniquely adaptive “state-like episode”, with its own observable patterns of biological and psychological events. They present compelling neuropsychological data to show that compassion responses have their own unique profile distinct from other emotional or cognitive response patterns and argue that a primary function of compassion is to enhance cooperation between community members, and increase protection for weak or suffering members.

The authors specifically defined compassion as “the feeling that arises in witnessing another’s suffering and that motivates a subsequent desire to help”. They emphasized that compassion is an objectively identifiable affective state, rather than only a subjectively-reported “attitude”, as has been previously assumed. They contrast “compassion from empathy, which refers to the vicarious experience of another’s emotions”. This distinction is important, because empathy could involve any kind of shared experience, whether it is suffering, thriving, or any other experience. A further distinction is that in the case of empathy, the experience of another’s emotional state is not necessarily coupled with the desire or action to help.  Indeed, it might be an individual’s ability to detect and feel another person’s emotional state that is the basis of their being able to take advantage of that person in some way. So, empathy does not necessarily lead to compassion. Goetz et al. (2010) also made efforts to distinguish compassion from “pity”, which has been defined as a state similar to compassion, but with the added feature of moral judgment, or sense of superiority over the sufferer.

 The authors reviewed three contemporary arguments supporting the view that compassion is evolutionarily advantageous. It is not so much that one of the following arguments is right to the exclusion of the others, but rather each line of reasoning offers different reasons why compassion is likely to continue to be present in biological evolution. The first major argument for compassion-like states being evolutionarily advantageous, is the “vulnerable offspring hypothesis”. This hypothesis of compassion accounts for state-like compassionate activity, meaning in the moment experiences and behaviors related to compassion (such as mother-child bonding). The other two arguments reviewed by the authors accounted for what may be considered “trait-like” compassionate functioning. According to these lines of reasoning, compassion “is a desirable emotion or attribute in mate selection processes”, and it also “enables cooperative relations with non-kin”. These are three compelling reasons for compassion’s place in the repertoire of our species’ evolution, showing that compassionate functioning does not represent a net loss to oneself, but a gain.

Therefore, compassion may have certain purposes in evolution, and not be just a fluke. There is an important counterargument to the position that compassion is only an evolutionary fluke, which the authors did not address.  Cronin (1991) and others claimed that compassion and related experiences/actions are disadvantageous, because they represent a loss of attentional or material resources on one’s own survival. What these theorists failed to consider, is that there are other examples of self-sacrificing patterns of behavior that confer evolutionary benefits to their species. In insects, this can be seen in the evolution of community-centered “kamakazee” defenses, such as bee stings. In humans, experiences/activities related to these have been theorized by Freud as expressions of the “death instinct”. However, compassionate action is far more life-preserving than an expression of a primitive instinct toward annihilation, but the comparison is valuable, because it shows that there are a variety of ways humans and other animals put others first.

The above arguments share an assumption that compassion is a state or trait, in the sense of a quality of individual consciousness. Halifax (2012) argues against this assumption, advancing the view that compassion is an emergent activity that originates in relationships, not individual traits. Halifax (2012) describes theorizes conditions of emergent compassion. According to Halifax, compassion is an expression of the tendency of organisms to interact with their environments through unified perception-action activities.  The author wrote, “Compassion has been defined as the emotion one experiences when feeling concern for another’s suffering and desiring to enhance that person’s welfare”. Compassion can thus be described as having two main components: the affective feeling of caring for one who is suffering (perception), and the motivation to relieve suffering (action).” Her concept of compassion as “dispositionally enactive” frames compassion as an emergent phenomenon, appearing between an organism and environment, under certain conditions. As such, it is not, the author argued, like “a muscle that can be trained”, or a trait to be enhanced in some way. Rather, Halifax described it as “interrelational”, “mutual”, and “reciprocal”. These different views emphasize different aspects of compassion relevant to efforts to promote it. Halifax’s model suggests focusing on conditions between people that allow compassion to emerge, whereas more classical evolutionary views emphasize individual states of mind. Whether it is arrived at within or between, science shows that the cultivation of compassion is not just a matter of ethics. It’s a matter of survival.   

Works Cited

Cronin H. The ant and the peacock. New York: Cambridge University Press; 1991.

Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: an evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological bulletin, 136(3), 351.

Halifax, J. (2012). A heuristic model of enactive compassion. Current Opinion in Supportive and Palliative Care, 6(2), 228-235.

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