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Why Did We Evolve to Feel Compassion? (Plus a Contest)

With 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 [1] (not to mention lend each other support during our biggest community endeavor of the year [2]), 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 [3] for others’ struggles and suffering coupled with the desire to lend help or support in some regard. Rather than the “vicarious” emotional experience [4] 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 [5]), 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 [6] 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 [6], differentiated from [4] 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 [4], 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 [7] 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 [6], 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 [6]–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 [4] 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 [8]? More than you’d perhaps imagine….

Research shows practicing compassion trips the pleasure circuits [9] 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 [10] for several months following the initial actions. Acting from a place of compassion has also been shown [11] to lower heart rate and raise oxytocin levels (that feel-good, social bonding hormone). Finally, research on compassion (or “loving-kindness”) meditation [12] demonstrates enhanced immune response [13].

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 [14] as well as Primal public service.

Thanks for reading, everyone. And check out the contest below for a fun way to share your own experience of compassion. 

Contest:

Can you think of one act of compassion you committed or witnessed during the last week? If one doesn’t come to mind, is there one you’d like to practice in the coming days? Share your answer below and I’ll give you the opportunity to share something special with family or friends. I’ll be giving away three 21-Day Total Body Transformation Essentials Packages [15] to one lucky person who leaves a comment below. The winner will be chosen at random.

Deadline:

This contest expires today, Jan. 21, at 11:59 pm PST.

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