An Evolutionary History of Compassion

A new book, The Prehistory of Compassion, is generating a fair amount of press coverage.  The title has a familiar ring to it and seemingly riffs Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind.  I would not be surprised if this is the case, given that Mithen and the authors are UK archaeologists with Cambridge connections.  The lead author, Penny Spikins, has a number of research interests relevant to the genealogy of religions: “My recent research addresses the role of autism in prehistoric societies, the evolution of emotions and the maintenance of egalitarian hunter-gatherer communities.

I would be most interested to know how one studies the role of autism in prehistoric societies, so I will try contacting Penny to ask.  As regular readers of the blog know, those afflicted with more severe forms of autism apparently cannot imagine invisible agents or non-physical beings.  This, in turn, impairs their ability to understand the supernatural.  There are several forums where one can find parents of autistic children despairing over the fact that their children do not appear to understand religion and wondering how this might impact their lives and souls.  It truly is tragic.

In any event, back to the new book which I have not read but will order — it is selling for an astonishingly low price ($8.22 for the softcover) and all proceeds are going to the “sponsor a child” charity World Vision.  This seems to be reason enough to buy the book, though the content also seems promising.

The authors propose a four stage model for the development of empathy/compassion in hominids, beginning six million years ago (a date apparently chosen because this is the approximate date of the hominid-chimpanzee divergence).  Over at Discovery News, Jennifer Viegas provides a synopsis of the four stages and Brandon Keim at Wired Science interviewed Spikins: Evolutionary biologists sometimes frame collaborative behaviors as a strategy for propagating genes, and compassion as an adaptation for fostering collaboration. It can feel very reductionist.

Spikins: From an evolutionary standpoint, collaboration works, and we’re deeply collaborative as a species. It was a key part of our success, and would have an emotional motivation behind it. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that compassion can be humbling, or inspiring. There are good evolutionary reasons for compassion, but that doesn’t make it less.

Apparently taking their cue from the book, several of these articles mention some rather precise dates — for instance, the Wired reporter states: “Compassion seems to begin in modern humans about 120,000 years ago, but estimates of its emergence in Neanderthals are much less precise — it could have been 40,000 years ago, or 500,000.”

I am not sure how these dates are being derived, but at first blush they seem a bit arbitrary.  Depending on how one defines “compassion” (the evolutionary neuroscientist Antonio Damasio would call compassion a “feeling” comprised of emotions that are mediated by higher order cognition), it is probably safe to assume that its precursor or substrate emotions have incredibly deep evolutionary roots — going back in time some 45 million years to Eocene anthropoids.  All living anthropoids, after all, display emotions and behave in ways that appear “compassionate.”  So do elephants and dolphins for that matter.

After reading the book, I will post a review.  It will be interesting to see if the authors link human compassion to the evolution of religion (and morals), which seems to be a fairly common tale told by group level selectionists.

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One thought on “An Evolutionary History of Compassion

  1. e.martinez

    I am a student who is interested in writing a paper on the origins of compassion and how it has evolved. If you could send me an email with some sources from this article I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you!

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