Why Did We Evolve to Feel Compassion?

Compassion finalWith the U.S. celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it felt like a good week to take up the question of compassion. In a week when we commemorate high human virtue (not to mention lend each other support during our biggest community endeavor of the year), what does it mean to offer compassion—and how did this inclination develop?

While compassion is defined a number of ways, the genuine crux of it is the concern we have for others’ struggles and suffering coupled with the desire to lend help or support in some regard. Rather than the “vicarious” emotional experience of another’s difficulties (sympathy or empathy, depending on who you talk to) or the actions we take in response to our concern for another’s situation (altruism), compassion records us more in the role of supportive witness—and perhaps motivated actor on another’s behalf. While today we consider compassion one of the most esteemed human traits, what were its origins? Is this really a product of evolutionary forces rather than cultural response? How could it have grown out of the rough and tough, survival-of-the-fittest world of Grok’s day?

The answer may be something of both nature and nurture, but make no mistake. The roots of compassion are pure genetic instinct even if modern society extends the context for compassionate exchange. Experts associate the development of compassion with a wide variety of key social dimensions within expanding human social organization. They note that compassion stands as its own emotion, differentiated from easily related feelings like sadness or even love.

Compassion can be both a trigger for and a response to our care-taking instincts—with obvious evolutionary benefits. When we feel concern for others’ well-being, particularly in the face of what we construe to be “undeserved suffering” or vulnerability, compassion moves us to display the emotional and behavioral responses of bonding, of claiming that person for our care, collaboration, kinship and/or protection.

It’s not hard to imagine the immediate genetic advantages. If Grok and his kin had a propensity for compassion toward their children and thereby were more attuned and responsive to the children’s needs and helplessness (particularly when they’re very young), those children would be more likely to survive. By extension, valuing compassion in one’s mate selection clearly would’ve been a key piece of this picture. Two compassionate parents would likely boost the child’s welfare.

While the primary evolutionary benefit might be that immediate offspring survival, group selection theory holds here, too. A tribe of reasonably compassionate individuals who were able to have concern and act for the benefit of others in the group would be better motivated and equipped to successfully collaborate, thereby supporting the survival of all. Evolutionary biologist, Robert Wright, calls this a second evolutionary logic, a product of later evolution (while kin selection, he suggests preceded even homo sapiens). This emotional evolutionary leap into extended kinship and its reciprocal altruism is that we’re motivated in that “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” kind of way.

Wright explains, we are still working with a limited circle until we begin to embrace a still more theoretical social concept of non-zero-sum gain–a relationship (situation) in which both you and I (or this group and that group) stand to gain something by collaborating. In the modern world, we more often find ourselves with knowledge or goods to share that will benefit both parties. National and international trade, communicable disease, and large-scale environmental concerns are all examples of interdependence or vaster scales of influence we’re smart to observe in our deliberations.

Yet, are we extending compassion a little too far here when we’re talking about the likes of international business? If we define compassion as an emotional instinct rather than a rational consideration, consciously self-serving intentions stretch beyond that scope of compassion. Wright, for his part, was talking more about society-scope collaboration than actual compassion, but it’s important to clarify the distinction for a number of reasons.

For one, rational deliberation won’t elicit physiological response, whereas primal emotion does. Beyond survival opportunity, is there a benefit to compassion? What, if anything does it have to do with health and well-being? More than you’d perhaps imagine….

Research shows practicing compassion trips the pleasure circuits in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate in the brain (triggering responses similar to those experienced when our own desires are fulfilled). In another study, compassionate actions enhanced self-esteem and self-reported happiness for several months following the initial actions. Acting from a place of compassion has also been shown to lower heart rate and raise oxytocin levels (that feel-good, social bonding hormone). Finally, research on compassion (or “loving-kindness”) meditation demonstrates enhanced immune response.

Of course, you can point out the irony in noting the self-serving elements of compassion and encouraging compassionate practice, but as the deeper dimensions of ancestral wellness consistently show, what works for the individual works for the group as a whole. In embracing the advantages to be had, you could say, we perform good self-care as well as Primal public service.

Thanks for reading, everyone.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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63 thoughts on “Why Did We Evolve to Feel Compassion?”

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  1. A few students of mine and I went to do community service. We cleaned the yard of an elderly man and woman. The woman brought the students out some cookies and ginger ale, and the man came to the door in a wheelchair. My students were blown away by the impact that they could have by using their able bodies. It was one of the most powerful moments I’ve had as a teacher.

  2. This is borderline ridiculous, but after stubbing my toe and letting out a sharp pain gasp, my dog came running to smother me with kisses. Pain and compassion are universal concepts. Caring for individual members of your pack in times of need helps ensure the survival and strength of the whole. I hope I can share at least a fraction of that compassion with my fellow man.

    1. My dog does the same to me! Anytime she hears me hurt myself or if i even SNEEZE she thinks im in pain, she runs over to me to slobber me in her kisses. I love my puppies <3 They show unwavering love and compassion

    2. Not ridiculous at all. Many animals are quite capable of feeling compassion and concern for other beings, including those not of their own species.

  3. Someone very dear to me in an abusive relationship. Various attempts to help her leave have been unsuccessful. As of now, she is caught in that web of being overpowered by another’s will. A policewoman told me there is nothing I can do, unless the victim makes a statement herself. The policewoman also thanked me for not giving up on this dear person. So what I do is send caring emails once or twice a month, to let her know that I care, and that our family stands ready to help if/when she decides to get free.

    1. That’s awesome of you, and I’m sure she really appreciates the support. I hope all goes well.

    2. That is incredible of you! I’ve worked with clients in this situation and it’s heart-breaking. I’m sure it means a lot to her that you’re not giving up on her.

  4. I saw someone give a backpack full of supplies to a homeless man. The homeless man was very thankful and complemented the man who gave him the supplies on his sport coat. The man took off his sport coat and tried to give it to the homeless man who was grateful but said that he couldn’t use it. Quite touching.

  5. I watched a man on crutches come into a college engineering lecture late and could not find a seat, someone then got up and let the man sit.

  6. I am extremely blessed to be the recipient of an act of compassion by my father. The gym my husband works at is going bankrupt, and while he is making a little bit of money from a start-up he is working on, we are in a sticky situation financially with a baby on the way (I’m 8 months pregnant as of yesterday!). We still live in a one bed/one bath apartment, which will be fine for the first 1/2 year or so after baby is born… But our rent is going up significantly. Yesterday, my dad offered to buy a place for us to rent from him at a lower cost than anywhere we can find to rent in Atlanta.
    My father would love to see his granddaughter grow up close by and his graciousness and compassion towards my husband and I is overwhelming. We feel as if a load has been lifted and I hope to find a way to show him our gratitude.

    1. Very nice gesture and I believe in family helping family. Be aware of unintended consequences, such as your husband potential feelings of failure or your father over stepping boundaries. I’ve seen this situation play out a few times.

    2. We have extended similar chances to my daughter in her hour(s) of need. Staying in touch with your father and including him in the excitement of the birth of his grandchild will more than enough ‘gratitude’ for him 🙂

  7. I work in a busy office and we get a lot of elderly patients. One co-worker performed an act that I thought showed enormous compassion…..one of our patients suddenly found herself without a ride back to her home from her office visit. (She lives in a rural area quite a distance from public transportation.)
    The very busy front desk person offered to give her a ride during her own lunch break. It was so heartwarming to see her generosity of spirit. I have since seen this same person exhibit this kind of behavior on other occasions…very inspiring!

  8. In my city we have free little libraries, where anyone can get a book or leave a book. They are open 24 hours, free to everyone, no card needed – just people sharing literacy throughout the city. I noticed the one where I purchase my gas was completely empty, so I went home, filled a box with books that we no longer need and took it to the little library. Hopefully a family enjoys all the stories to come!

  9. Part of my plan for this paycheck is to donate to some worthy causes: aid for the Syrian refugees, the health fund for a comic book artist who suffered a stroke, etc.

  10. Being in metro New York, we see a lot of tourists struggle to navigate the subway system, especially when there’s maintenance or schedule changes. It’s not much from my perspective, but I helped someone get to where they needed to go.

  11. I did two things:

    1. Just today, I got some groceries for a shut-in. We live on the East Coast, and a storm is coming our way that will make shut-ins of us both for the next few days. I wanted to make sure she had what she needed until the weather gets back to “normal” (for winter). Her family was all at work, and now they can concentrate on getting their own storm supplies without having to worry about Mom.

    2. Last week, we took in a cat that had been wandering the street out in the frigid temps. Some neighbors recently moved away, and apparently left their cat. I have no idea how to contact them to let them know their cat is safe, and it really doesn’t matter–I just couldn’t bear to have an animal out in sub-zero weather like we’ve had the last few nights.

    1. The cat may have been left behind deliberately. Unfortunately, all too many people have a cavalier attitude toward the safety and wellbeing of their pets. Makes you wonder why they got them in the first place.

  12. My act of compassion is to point out that mainstream evolutionary theories, such as kin selection, mutualism and reciprocal altruism, are sufficient to explain the evolution of compassion etc. Group selection, as you’ve described it, doesn’t work (selfish free-riders would displace the altruistic compassionate individuals). Also, the logic of nonzerosum gains applies all the way up — it can be used to describe interactions between genes, individuals, nation states etc, as per Wright’s book NonZero.

  13. I cook healthy meals for families I know who have lost a loved one. I live in an older neighborhood, so I usually end up doing this several times a month. Last night I cooked a roasted chicken and vegetables for a family who lost their mother to cancer at age 57.

    1. As someone who has had to be the recipient of this sort of gesture, thank you, thank you, thank you.

  14. One of the foundations of our gym is compassion. So this winter one of the things we did was a sock drive for homeless(it’s their most needed item) but instead of just collecting socks and giving them to a shelter we actually hit the streets and physically handed the socks out to those in need and actually talked to them. It is one thing to give a gift to someone but when you sit down and talk to them it humanizing them and makes a bigger difference.

    I don’t need the prize…….. just wanted to encourage and provide food for thought. We don’t always know the stories of those on the streets so we shouldnt be too quick to judge them. When you judge first you have no room to love them.


  15. I recently donated to two organizations that I believe in. As a college student, money is tight and in order to be able to donate I had to cut spending- I have yet to buy anything other than textbooks from the bookstore and really have hardly bought anything recently. The feeling that came along with donating made me so happy and I definitely will try to do so whenever possible!!

  16. This one not for a contest, but just to say we put our dog Tulip “down” as they say yesterday. Three long great howls together, two last great walks together, one last pee together with our six paws bare in the snow, then with our hands on her and our stories of her youth murmured she was there and there and not, and now old Grey’s wildroaming the city and whatever wasn’t Primal in the scene yet this is, a man and his gone dog, the man inconsolable and half dog anyway and roaming wild and howls barely suppressed and the moon coming on. At the butcher’s they knew me, the vegetarian gone paleo, knew me and what I’d lost and gave me the heart of a young sheep, unsullied with an exchange of money, and I ate it alone.

    1. I feel your pain, grey. Our last two dogs both died at home, peacefully, with their beloved family at hand. They were in no pain, just very old. We’d had them both since they were young puppies. They were our friends, our family members, and our four-footed “children.” It didn’t alleviate the deep hurt of our loss, but it did help knowing that they passed easily, in familiar surroundings.

    2. So sorry for your loss, Grey. How beautiful that you eased her out gently and honoured her.

  17. As a history professor , one thing I’ve noticed since studying the Paleolithic lifestyle over the past 6 years – is that so many of our Paleolithic behaviours may have pertinence the modern world. It is vital to understand better evolutionary development has been both on a individual level and on a tribal level. That is what gives us the wonderful diversity of mankind . What you wrote about compassion for the member of one’s family and an extension , one’s tribe. The inescapable fact is that there are still dramatic tribal differences. From the beginning of time there have been tribes based on ethnology religion a political viewpoint cultural viewpoint , or simply self aggrandizement the power of the group – – who sought to control others enslave others , even genocide whole other peoples. Is a misplaced compassion to support in the name of compassion the destruction of your own people , your own your own genetic inheritance an expression . With immigration policies fostering massive demographic change to groups of different political cultural religious and other values would be something I pay out their ancestors would quickly and instinctively recognize and oppose. Exogrnous compassion to a different group or tribe that leads to the extinction of your own tribe and its o
    wn genetics is essentially on a tribal level the same thing as an individual feeding modern and punhealthy culturally promoted foods for their children — leading them to their own destruction

  18. I witnessed my daughter demonstrate compassion. She invited her cousin to celebrate her birthday at the Mall of America. We saved our money to pay for the flight, hotel, and food. When we picked up the cousin we learned she had no money to spend. Her parents have been struggling to pay bills. My daughter used all her birthday money and took her cousin on a shopping spree instead of using the money for herself. In return, the cousin only bought one gift for herself and the rest for her family. Everyone came home full of joy.

  19. In an era where subconscious bias further undermines an already inequitable playing field, I watched a colleague raise HIS hand during a meeting and get called upon – after a woman nearby who had recurrently been raising HER hand had been neglected. The man called upon simply said, “Oh, she had a comment – what was it you were wanting to say…?”

  20. When I came to work, I noticed that someone had left their lights on in their car. I let the parking office know and they made an announcement about it. Hopefully that person heard it and turned their lights off!

  21. This morning I brought groceries (Including the two pounds of bacon she requested 🙂 ) to my 90 yr old grandma who doesn’t drive. I love visiting her & I think she enjoys the company. (By the way, many times when I read a story about a centenarian, they mention their love for bacon…hmmm). Thanks for the contest, I’m really enjoying reading the comments.

  22. The other day I was taking a walk and saw an old lady struggling to try to pick an orange that was overhanging a fence along a public sidewalk. I went over, picked the orange, handed it to her, and her smile just made my day. Sometimes, it’s the little things.

  23. I loved reading all the stories. Sometimes I feel hopeless for the world, and then I hear about all these small things (and big things too) that people do for each other and I feel hopeful again. In the words of Gandalf, “I’ve found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.”

    The act of compassion I’ve witnessed in the last week is from my mema. Her mom, my great grandma, was given 1-2 days to live. When I visited, my mema had already stayed by her bedside 2 straight nights without going home. During my visit I couldn’t help but cry. Seeing someone suffer like that is painful, I don’t wish anyone to go through that, especially someone who is so kind and caring. My mema comforted me and told me it was okay to cry. I don’t know how she stays so strong. I only stayed about 10 minutes and it was almost unbearable and I cried for the next 30 minutes. My mema is the most selfless person I know, and I know her mother was proud of her.

    All of this prompted me to remain on my new path of healthy eating, and to encourage my family to start eating better too.
    My act of compassion for the next few days, and every day after, is to spread joy and goodwill to all I come across, and to encourage my family to adopt better eating habits, however slow the process may be.

    I wish all of you the loveliest day.

  24. Great post. I’ve many times thought about the contradictory nature of compassion/charity as it is self-serving to an extent. Also, on a not-so-intellectual topic, a Friends episode comes to mind where someone challenges Phoebe to do something charitable that doesn’t make her feel good and she can’t.

    I like to blankets, pillows, and non-perishable foods in my car to give out to homeless people if they seem to need it.

  25. I usually take advantage of opportunities to donate to the local food bank at my local grocery store. They make it very easy to impulse-donate money. I usually aim for approximately 10% of my grocery bill.

  26. My long-time best friend lost her dad to colon cancer this week. I lost both my parents in my early 20s, so this is familiar territory for me, but with two very small kids I wasn’t sure how to be physically and emotionally present for her. Without asking, my dear aunt called and told me she was going to watch my kids. She stepped in and offered an act of compassion for this worn-out mama so I could offer compassion to a grieving friend. This morning I got to help her say goodbye in the church where we both grew up, where we were both married, and now from which three of our parents have been buried. Now I’m going to spend the rest of the day snuggling my babies.

  27. Just want to say that if an act isn’t done in the love of Christ, it isn’t going to amount for anything eternal.
    That being said, I want each of my words and actions to be done in love. Whether it be taking care of my precious husband and dogs, giving some food to a homeless man or woman, or writing a note of encouragement…all can be done as unto the Lord.

    1. Maybe we do it out of the goodness of our hearts and not to get brownie points from a deity.

  28. I work as a counselor with detox patients. For me, showing compassion at work is a big part of my job in building rapport and hopefully helping my clients to make positive life changes. I spend a lot of time listening to their stories and do my best to validate them as a person having worth. Just last week a girl told me about an unwanted abortion. It nearly broke my heart to listen but getting her to believe she can heal from this and regain hope was amazing!

  29. I was in Freeport Maine at an outlet and converged with another buyer entering an outlet, and she stepped back and let me enter first, which I thought was so nice of her. I then found her inside the store and asked her if she was the lady who I had met at the entrance.
    She looked a little apprehensive, not knowing what I was about to say, …said yes??? ….., but I said to her that I wanted to pass on what some of my Australian relatives had commented when visiting America for a month this past summer. They kept saying how polite Americans were, everywhere. I thought you were so polite to me. I just wanted to pass their comment on. She was thrilled.

  30. Holding open doors and smiling, everyday. Those little things mean so much and are so easy to do.

  31. I recently moved out of the worst residents building ever and into my first apartment but sadly my friend is still stuck in there so I gave her my rice cooker. As well as a type of larabar I told her she should try. I mean it’s not the nicest thing ever but it’ll be helpful for her. Also just trying to be the nicest person I can be. I don’t know how compassionate that is but I guessas long as you try

  32. A random act of kindness I witmessed today was by my sister in laws Uncle Marc who is a Phoenix Police Officer. With all the bad press our police officers have gotten this past year, it’s awesome to see our news channels highlighting and spreading awareness of the big hearts and kindness our officers show.
    WATCH: https://bit.ly/1RBePWo

  33. While walking pass the local veterinarian, I noticed an elderly woman struggling with a cage. I offered to help carry the cat to the vet. She thanked me and I was glad to help.

  34. Getting 3 things at the grocery store there were long lines and a rather kind southern gentleman insisted I go ahead of him, I told him “no” but of course he was to have none of that. It was very refreshing and kind.

  35. I have been going to the gym twice a day with a friend. She isn’t motivated to go and wants to lose weight for her wedding. So we have been working out together to motivate each other to meet our goals! I would like to continue this forever!

  36. Two of my younger cousins have spent the laslast few weekends with us. These kids don’t have alot going for them, but one of them gave a homeless person on the street their pair of gloves that my wife had found for him to go ice skating with.

  37. Even tho we live in Central Arizona — which most folks assume is warn/hot all the time — can actually get quite cold. We do get snow and very cold nighttime temps in the 20’s for several months resulting in icy sidewalks, driveways, etc.

    My DH, bless his heart, will shovel the driveways and walkways for some of the old folks around here who can’t do it for themselves. He just does it and doesn’t ask anything in return. (There have been times when these folks didn’t even know who the Good Samaritan was that cleared off the driveways! ) This allows them to get to the mailboxes which are out on the street, and if their newspaper is out on the sidewalk where they can’t get to it, he’ll put the paper on their doorstep so they won’t have to worry about navigating their way on the icy “slopes”

    Just so you know – he’s an “old folk” also – he’s 84 years old and still taking care of others.

  38. This past week I was leaving a coffee shop and about to go to my car when I saw an elderly man with crutches about to go into a store. I quickly approached him and opened the door for him.
    Made me remember a time when I sprained my ankle and how thankful I felt for my friend who helped me when that happened.

  39. This really feels like bragging (blushing and unconfirmeuncomfortable)…but hopefully someone will read this and it will motivate them to do good.
    I organized a fun outing for my community group this last Saturday. We volunteered at the United Way sorting and cleaning books for two programs. The best, new looking books went to Helen’s Closet -a boutique that allows foster and kinship families to”shop” for necessities like clothes, toys, books as they often come to the program with nothing. Other younger more “loved on” books go to the 12 Books program that tries to get 12 books in the homes of less privileged kindergarten and 1st grade students.

    I also help my father-in-law who has diabetes and dementia. In the last two months we have been able to get his blood sugar mostly in the 90s. It used to regularly be over 200. By cutting snacks and moving more. A big success for all of us.

  40. Several weeks back the temperatures were getting down to around -8. My fiance headed to the store. A little later he came back and grabbed his 3 layer, water proof military sleeping bag and headed out again. I had no idea what he was doing. I found out later he saw a lady pushing a shopping cart with 2 wooden pallets on top. When he realized she was planning to burn them to keep warm that night, he came home and got the sleeping bag plus gave her the $60 bucks in his pocket.

  41. I had forgotten an ice scraper in my car, and a coworker saw me standing in need by my car. She happened to have 2 scrapers, and she helped to clear my car from the unexpected ice and snow.

  42. Love is the inability to hate. Compassion yields unsolicited acts of kindness. I often see panhandlers and there are places where there are too many to help them all. IS one helping them by giving the money to buy more alcohol? Some are even agressive and demanding. I often evaluate a need with the question, “what was the nicest thing you did for a stranger today?” Most of them answer with a blank look of disgust. One time a guy replied, “see that car(a late model German sports car), it was about to get a ticket, so I put a quarter in the meter”. I gave him the $50 Macy’s gift card I had I my pocket at the time. The people who need and deserve help the most are too kind to ask for it. Compassion is the mindful process identifying and fulfilling the needs of others who themselves are too considerate to ask for it. The result is always mutual happiness.

  43. The other day my 3 year old daughter was upset for reasons I can’t remember, there’s always something with kids eh, and she was lying on the floor crying her heart out. I couldn’t get to her straight away, but my cat Eek came running over to her and lied down next to her as if she wanted to cheer her up.
    She always gets very worried and comes running whenever the kids are upset. I don’t know if that is compassion or what, but she is definitely an amazingly loving and gentle cat. <3

  44. The other day it was raining…just adding to the sadness of my own space, wanting to reinvent myself and not take with me the old tapes….I was at the store looking to buy alcohol. When I noticed a very young mom trying to cross the busy parking lot with a baby in one arm and trying to hold on to a toddler who in his exuberant joy at seeing “puddles of water” was not cooperating. I walked up to her and asked if I could hold his other hand and help her to her car. She was a bit guarded naturally but relieved. She made the comment that maybe she had kids too close together..I told her that what she had was perfect.

  45. This is an awesome post. Interesting to note that there is a correlation between compassion and oxytocin! Great stuff!

  46. Sometimes it’s the little things that register and mean a lot to people. While I was shopping this morning a bloke was emptying his basket on to the checkout conveyor and he was several feet from the end with a woman & trolley between him and the basket pile. I took his basket from him and put it on the pile. The woman with a trolley load in front of me saw this and noticed I only had three items. She then let me go in front of her. This small kindness made my day.

  47. Routine blood work came back..passed with flying colors, first-time in my adult life….paleoworks! #nocholesterolmedsneedef
    Lost 25 lbs in 11 months

  48. My 10 yr old daughter and 2 friends went and bought a new baby guinea pig for a classmate whose guinea pig died a week ago. They waited for her to leave the school after a late sports match (my daughter and her friends had left school right at dismissal and had time to go to the petstore). They presented it to her as a total surprise. I think her mom was equally shocked!! They didn’t check with her first, but by then it was too late!