Monday, September 7, 2015

Are Empathy and Compassion "Natural"?

One bonobo comforts another.
             Frans De Waal is a scientist who studies bonobos and chimpanzees, animals that are most like human beings.  He noticed some natural behaviors  that seemed to show that these animals had empathy and a sense of fairness.  Empathy means the ability to identify with another and imagine what the other feels.  The picture showing a bonobo comforting another with a hug suggests that one animal feels empathy for pain or disappointment the other felt. 

             De Waal conducted experiments that seem to prove that bonobos and chimps show empathy and fairness.  Apparently, grapes are highly prized by both kinds of animals.  If two bonobos are both given grapes, they are happy but if only one gets a grape and the other gets a cucumber, the one with the cucumber gets angry. They stay angry until they get a grape too.  This is interpreted as a sense of fairness. The bonobos are self-centered. Chimps are able to sacrifice until fairness is established..  If one chimp gets a grape and the other gets a cucumber, the one with the grape won’t eat the grape until the other chimp also is given a grape.

Based on these findings, DeWaal argues that morality is naturally hardwired into the emotional system and does not come from religion, or thinking.  DeWaal thinks that the difference between bonobos and chimps on one side and humans on the other is that the animals have these responses when faced with another animal, whereas humans can generalize.  What we understand about one person we can apply to the whole group.

If being good and fair is natural, then why do some people act in ways that hurt others?  If empathy motivates a bonobo to comfort another, why do people cause each other pain and suffering?  Why do people hurt each other? 

Toddler comforts another who is crying.
People have minds and the ability to choose, whereas animals operate according to instinct.  What does the mind do that can cause people to hurt each other? 

What if emotions and feelings were the first mind, a kind of mind we share with animals.  The second mind would be the mind that names things, that can learn and communicate with language, that can solve puzzles and think, that can choose.  If emotions and feelings cannot be expressed, they build up inside.  Eventually, they will be expressed, sometimes in hurtful ways.  Even though the second mind, the thinking mind, may know what’s right, it may no longer be in charge. 

Feelings can make life enjoyable and beautiful or can be like a time bomb.  Can you talk about your feelings?  Do you know words for how you feel? Do you know ways to express feeling that don’t hurt others?  Some people use exercise to get the energy out of their bodies.  Some people sing or dance or draw pictures.  Some people are able to write. Even if you think you can’t get it, tell how you feel and what you need.


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