Neuroscience and Moral Politics: Chomsky’s Intellectual Progeny

Are humans "wired for empathy"? How does this affect what Chomsky calls the "manufacturing of consent"?

Throughout the world, teachers, sociologists, policymakers and parents are discovering that empathy may be the single most important quality that must be nurtured to give peace a fighting chance.
—Arundhati Roy

The official directives needn’t be explicit to be well understood: Do not let too much empathy move in unauthorized directions.
—Norman Solomon

The nonprofit Edge Foundation recently asked some of the world’s most eminent scientists, “What are you optimistic about? Why?” In response, the prominent neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni cites the proliferating experimental work into the neural mechanisms that reveal how humans are “wired for empathy.”

Iacoboni’s optimism is grounded in his belief that, with the popularization of scientific insights, these recent findings in neuroscience will seep into public awareness and “… this explicit level of understanding our empathic nature will at some point dissolve the massive belief systems that dominate our societies and that threaten to destroy us.” (Iacoboni, 2007, p. 14)

While there are reasons to remain skeptical (see below) about the progressive political implications flowing from this work, a body of impressive empirical evidence reveals that the roots of prosocial behavior, including moral sentiments such as empathy, precede the evolution of culture. This work sustains Noam Chomsky’s visionary writing about a human moral instinct, and his assertion that, while the principles of our moral nature have been poorly understood, “we can hardly doubt their existence or their central role in our intellectual and moral lives.” (Chomsky, 1971, n.p., 1988; 2005, p. 263)

In his influential book Mutual Aid (1972, p. 57; 1902), the Russian revolutionary anarchist, geographer, and naturalist Petr Kropotkin, maintained that “… under any circumstances sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life. Those species which willingly abandon it are doomed to decay.” Species cooperation provided an evolutionary advantage, a “natural” strategy for survival.

While Kropotkin readily acknowledged the role of competition, he asserted that mutual aid was a “moral instinct” and “natural law.” Based on his extensive studies of the animal world, he believed that this predisposition toward helping one another—human sociality—was of “prehuman origin.” Killen and Cords, in a fittingly titled piece “Prince Kropotkin’s Ghost,” suggest that recent research in developmental psychology and primatology seems to vindicate Kropotkin’s century-old assertions (2002).

The emerging field of the neuroscience of empathy parallels investigations being undertaken in cognate fields. Some forty years ago the celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall observed and wrote about chimpanzee emotions, social relationships, and “chimp culture,” but experts remained skeptical. A decade ago, the famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal (1996) wrote about the antecedents to morality in Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, but scientific consensus remained elusive.

All that’s changed. As a recent editorial in the journal Nature (2007) put it, it’s now “unassailable fact” that human minds, including aspects of moral thought, are the product of evolution from earlier primates. According to de Waal, “You don’t hear any debate now.” In his more recent work, de Waal plausibly argues that human morality—including our capacity to empathize—is a natural outgrowth or inheritance of behavior from our closest evolutionary relatives.

Following Darwin, highly sophisticated studies by biologists Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson posit that large-scale cooperation within the human species—including with genetically unrelated individuals within a group—was favored by selection. (Hauser, 2006, p. 416) Evolution selected for the trait of empathy because there were survival benefits in coming to grips with others. In his book, People of the Lake (1978) the world-renowned paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey unequivocally declares, “We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation.”

Studies have shown that empathy is present in very young children, even at eighteen months of age and possibly younger. In the primate world, Warneken and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute at Leipzig, Germany, recently found that chimps extend help to unrelated chimps and unfamiliar humans, even when inconvenienced and regardless of any expectation of reward. This suggests that empathy may lie behind this natural tendency to help and that it was a factor in the social life of the common ancestor to chimpanzees and humans at the split some six million years ago (New Scientist, 2007; Warneken and Tomasello, 2006). It’s now indisputable that we share moral faculties with other species (de Waal, 2006; Trivers, 1971; Katz, 2000; Gintis, 2005; Hauser, 2006; Bekoff, 2007; Pierce, 2007). Pierce notes that there are “countless anecdotal accounts of elephants showing empathy toward sick and dying animals, both kin and non-kin” (2007, p. 6). And recent research in Kenya has conclusively documented elephant’s open grieving/empathy for other dead elephants.

Mogil and his team at McGill University recently demonstrated that mice feel distress when they observe other mice experiencing pain. They tentatively concluded that the mice engaged visual cues to bring about this empathic response (Mogil, 2006; Ganguli, 2006). De Waal’s response to this study: “This is a highly significant finding and should open the eyes of people who think empathy is limited to our species.” (Carey, 2006)

Further, Grufman and other scientists at the National Institutes of Health have offered persuasive evidence that altruistic acts activate a primitive part of the brain, producing a pleasurable response (2007). And recent research by Koenigs and colleagues (2007) indicates that within the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or VMPC is required for emotions and moral judgment. Damage to the VMPC has been linked to psychopathic behavior. This led to the belief that as a rule, psychopaths do not experience empathy or remorse.

A study by Miller (2001) and colleagues of the brain disorder frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is also instructive. FTD attacks the frontal lobes and anterior temporal lobes, the site of one’s sense of self. One early symptom of FTD is the loss of empathy.

We know from neuroscientific empathy experiments that the same affective brain circuits are automatically mobilized upon feeling one’s own pain and the pain of others. Through brain imaging, we also know that separate neural processing regions then free up the capacity to take action. As Decety notes, empathy then allows us to “forge connections with people whose lives seem utterly alien from us” (Decety, 2006, p. 2). Where comparable experience is lacking, this “cognitive empathy” builds on the neural basis and allows one to “actively project oneself into the shoes of another person” by trying to imagine the other person’s situation (Preston, in press), Preston and de Waal (2002). Empathy is “other directed,” the recognition of the other’s humanity.


So where does this leave us? If morality is rooted in biology, in the raw material or building blocks for the evolution of its expression, we now have a pending fortuitous marriage of hard science and secular morality in the most profound sense. The technical details of the social neuroscientific analysis supporting these assertions lie outside this paper, but suffice it to say that progress is proceeding at an exponential pace and the new discoveries are persuasive (Decety and Lamm, 2006; Lamm, 2007; Jackson, 2004 and 2006).

That said, one of the most vexing problems that remains to be explained is why so little progress has been made in extending this empathic orientation to distant lives, to those outside certain in-group moral circles. Given a world rife with overt and structural violence, one is forced to explain why our deep-seated moral intuition doesn’t produce a more ameliorating effect, a more peaceful world. Iacoboni suggests this disjuncture is explained by massive belief systems, including political and religious ones, operating on the reflective and deliberate level. These tend to override the automatic, pre-reflective, neurobiological traits that should bring people together.

Here a few cautionary notes are warranted. The first is that social context and triggering conditions are critical because, where there is conscious and massive elite manipulation, it becomes exceedingly difficult to get in touch with our moral faculties. Ervin Staub, a pioneering investigator in the field, acknowledges that even if empathy is rooted in nature, people will not act on it “… unless they have certain kinds of life experiences that shape their orientation toward other human beings and toward themselves (Staub, 2002, p. 222). As Jensen puts it, “The way we are educated and entertained keep us from knowing about or understanding the pain of others” (2002). Circumstances may preclude and overwhelm our perceptions, rendering us incapable of recognizing and giving expression to moral sentiments (Albert, n.d.; and also, Pinker, 2002). For example, the fear-mongering of artificially created scarcity may attenuate the empathic response. The limitation placed on exposure is another. As reported recently in the New York Times, the Pentagon imposes tight embedding restrictions on journalist’s ability to run photographs and other images of casualties in Iraq. Photographs of coffins returning to Dover Air Base in Delaware are simply forbidden. Memorial services for the fallen are also now prohibited even if the unit gives its approval.

The second cautionary note is Hauser’s (2006) observation that proximity was undoubtedly a factor in the expression of empathy. In our evolutionary past an attachment to the larger human family was virtually incomprehensible and, therefore, the emotional connection was lacking. Joshua Greene, a philosopher and neuroscientist, adds that “We evolved in a world where people in trouble right in front of you existed, so our emotions were tuned to them, whereas we didn’t face the other kind of situation.” He suggests that to extend this immediate emotion-linked morality—one based on fundamental brain circuits—to unseen victims requires paying less attention to intuition and more to the cognitive dimension. If this boundary isn’t contrived, it would seem, at a minimum, circumstantial and thus worthy of reassessing morality (Greene, 2007, n.p.). Given some of the positive dimensions of globalization, the potential for identifying with the “stranger” has never been more robust.

Finally, as Preston (2006-2007; and also, in press) suggests, risk and stress tend to suppress empathy whereas familiarity and similarity encourage the experience of natural, reflexive empathy. This formidable but not insurmountable challenge warrants further research into how this “out-group” identity is created and reinforced.

It may be helpful, as Halpern (1993, p. 169) suggests, to think of empathy as a sort of spark of natural curiosity, prompting a need for further understanding and deeper questioning. However, our understanding of how or whether political engagement follows remains in its infancy and demands further investigation.


Almost a century ago, Stein (1917) wrote about empathy as “the experience of foreign consciousness in general.” Salles’ film The Motorcycle Diaries addresses empathy, albeit indirectly. The film follows Ernesto Guevara de la Serna and his friend Alberto Granada on an eight-month trek across Argentina, Peru, Columbia, Chile and Venezuela.

When leaving his leafy, upper middle-class suburb (his father is an architect) in Buenos Aires in 1952, Guevara is 23 and a semester away from earning his medical degree. The young men embark on an adventure, a last fling before settling down to careers and lives of privilege. They are preoccupied with women, fun and adventure and certainly not seeking or expecting a life-transforming odyssey.

The film’s power is in its depiction of Guevara’s emerging political awareness that occurs as a consequence of unfiltered cumulative experiences. During their 8,000-mile journey, they encounter massive poverty, exploitation, and brutal working conditions, all consequences of an unjust international economic order. By the end, Guevara has turned away from being a doctor because medicine is limited to treating the symptoms of poverty. For him, revolution becomes the expression of empathy, the only effective way to address suffering’s root causes. This requires melding the cognitive component of empathy with engagement, with resistance against asymmetrical power, always an inherently political act. Otherwise, empathy has no meaning. (This roughly parallels the political practice of brahma-viharas by engaged Buddhists.) In his own oft-quoted words (not included in the film), Guevara stated that, “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.”

Paul Farmer, the contemporary medical anthropologist, infectious-disease specialist and international public health activist, has adopted different tactics, but his diagnosis of the “pathologies of power” is remarkably similar to Guevara. He also writes approvingly of Cuba’s health programs, comparing them with his long work experience in Haiti. Both individuals were motivated early on by the belief that artificial epidemics have their origin in unjust socioeconomic structures, hence the need for social medicine, a “politics as medicine on a grand scale.” Both exemplify exceptional social outliers of engaged empathy and the interplay of affective, cognitive and moral components. For Farmer’s radical critique of structural violence and the connections between disease and social inequality, see (Farmer, 2003; Kidder, 2003). Again, it remains to be explained why there is such a paucity of real world examples of empathic behavior? Why is U.S. culture characterized by a massive empathy deficit of almost pathological proportions? And what might be reasonably expected from a wider public understanding of the nature of empathy?

Hauser posits a “universal moral grammar,” hard-wired into our neural circuits via evolution. This neural machinery precedes conscious decisions in life-and-death situations, however, we observe “nurture entering the picture to set the parameters and guide us toward the acquisition of particular moral systems.” At other points, he suggests that environmental factors can push individuals toward defective moral reasoning, and the various outcomes for a given local culture are seemingly limitless. (Hauser, 2006) For me, this discussion of cultural variation fails to give sufficient attention to the socioeconomic variables responsible for shaping the culture.

“It all has to do with the quality of justice and the availability of opportunity.” (2006, p. 151). Earlier, Goldschmidt (1999, n.p.) argued that, “Culturally derived motives may replace, supplement or override genetically programmed behavior.”

Cultures are rarely neutral, innocent phenomena but are consciously set up to reward some people and penalize others. As Parenti (2006) forcefully asserts, certain aspects of culture can function as instruments of social power and social domination through ideological indoctrination. Culture is part and parcel of political struggle, and studying culture can reveal how power is exercised and on whose behalf.

Cohen and Rogers, in parsing Chomsky’s critique of elites, note that “Once an unjust order exists, those benefiting from it have both an interest in maintaining it and, by virtue of their social advantages, the power to do so.” (Cohen, 1991, p. 17) (For a concise but not uncritical treatment of Chomsky’s social and ethical views, see Cohen, 1991.) Clearly, the vaunted human capacity for verbal communication cuts both ways. In the wrong hands, this capacity is often abused by consciously quelling the empathic response. When de Waal writes, “Animals are no moral philosophers,” I’m left to wonder if he isn’t favoring the former in this comparison. (de Waal, 1996b, n.p.)

One of the methods employed within capitalist democracies is Chomsky’s and Herman’s “manufacture of consent,” a form of highly sophisticated thought control. Potentially active citizens must be “distracted from their real interests and deliberately confused about the way the world works.” (Cohen, 1991, p. 7; Chomsky, 1988)

For this essay, and following Chomsky, I’m arguing that the human mind is the primary target of this perverse “nurture” or propaganda, in part because exposure to certain new truths about empathy—hard evidence about our innate moral nature—poses a direct threat to elite interests. There’s no ghost in the machine, but the capitalist machine attempts to keep people in line with an ideological ghost, the notion of a self constructed on market values. But “. . . if no one saw himself or herself as capitalism needs them to do, their own self-respect would bar the system from exploiting and manipulating them.” (Kelleher, 2007) That is, given the apparent universality of this biological predisposition toward empathy, we have a potent scientific baseline upon which to launch further critiques of elite manipulation, this cultivation of callousness.

First, the evolutionary and biological origins of empathy contribute hard empirical evidence—not wishful thinking or even logical inference—on behalf of a case for organizing vastly better societies.

In that vein, this new research is entirely consistent with work on the nature of authentic love and the concrete expression of that love in the form of care, effort, responsibility, courage and respect. As Eagleton reminds us, if others are also engaging in this behavior, “. . . the result is a form of reciprocal service which provides the context for each self to flourish. The traditional name for this reciprocity is love.” Because reciprocity mandates equality and an end to exploitation and oppression, it follows that “a just, compassionate treatment of other people is on the grand scale of things one of the conditions for one’s own thriving.” And as social animals, when we act in this way we are realizing our natures “at their finest.” (2007, pp. 170, 159-160, and 173) Again, the political question remains that of realizing a form of global environment that enhances the opportunity for our nature to flourish.

I’ve noted elsewhere, Fromm’s classic book The Art of Loving is a blistering indictment of the social and economic forces that deny us life’s most rewarding experience and “the only satisfying answer to the problem of human existence.” For Fromm, grasping how society shapes our human instincts, hence our behavior, is in turn the key to understanding why “love thy neighbor,” the love of the stranger, is so elusive in modern society.

The global capitalist culture with its premium on accumulation and profits not only devalues an empathic disposition but produces a stunted character in which everything is transformed into a commodity, not only things, but individuals themselves. The very capacity to practice empathy (love) is subordinated to our state religion of the market in which each person seeks advantage in an alienating and endless commodity-greedy competition.

Over five decades ago, Fromm persuasively argued that “The principles of capitalist society and the principles of love are incompatible.” (Fromm, 1956, p. 110). Any honest person knows that the dominant features of capitalist society tend to produce individuals who are estranged from themselves, crippled personalities robbed of their humanity and in a constant struggle to express empathic love. Little wonder that Fromm believed radical changes in our social structure and economic institutions were needed if empathy/love is to be anything more than a rare individual achievement and a socially marginal phenomenon. He understood that only when the economic system serves women and men, rather than the opposite, will this be possible (Olson, 2006).


The dominant cultural narrative of hyper-individualism is challenged and the insidiously effective scapegoating of human nature that claims we are motivated by greedy, dog-eat-dog “individual self-interest is all” is undermined. From original sin to today’s “selfish gene,” certain interpretations of human nature have invariably functioned to retard class consciousness. These new research findings help to refute the allegation that people are naturally uncooperative, an argument frequently employed to intimidate and convince people that it’s futile to seek a better society for everyone. Stripped of yet another rationalization for empire, predatory behavior on behalf of the capitalist mode of production becomes ever more transparent. And learning about the conscious suppression of this essential core of our nature should beg additional troubling questions about the motives behind other elite-generated ideologies, from neo-liberalism to the “war on terror.”

Second, there are implications for students. Cultivating empathic engagement through education remains a poorly understood enterprise. College students, for example, may hear the ‘cry of the people’ but the moral sound waves are muted as they pass through a series of powerful cultural baffles. Williams (1986, p. 143) notes that “While they may be models of compassion and generosity to those in their immediate circles, many of our students today have a blind spot for their responsibilities in the socio-political order. In the traditional vocabulary they are strong on charity but weak on justice.”

Nussbaum (1997) defends American liberal education’s record at cultivating an empathic imagination. She claims that understanding the lives of strangers and achieving cosmopolitan global citizenship can be realized through the arts and literary humanities. There is little solid evidence to substantiate this optimism. My own take on empathy-enhancing practices within U.S. colleges and universities is considerably less sanguine. Nussbaum’s episodic examples of stepping into the mental shoes of other people are rarely accompanied by plausible answers as why these people may be lacking shoes—or decent jobs, minimum healthcare, and long-life expectancy. The space within educational settings has been egregiously underutilized, in part, because we don’t know enough about propitious interstices where critical pedagogy could make a difference. Arguably the most serious barrier is the cynical, even despairing doubt about the existence of a moral instinct for empathy. The new research puts this doubt to rest and rightly shifts the emphasis to strategies for cultivating empathy and identifying with “the other.” Joining the affective and cognitive dimensions of empathy may require risky forms of radical pedagogy (Olson, 2006, 2007; Gallo, 1989). Evidence produced from a game situation with medical students strongly hints that empathic responses can be significantly enhanced by increased knowledge about the specific needs of others—in this case, the elderly (Varkey, 2006). Presumably, limited prior experiences would affect one’s emotional response. Again, this is a political culture/information acquisition issue that demands further study.

Third, for many people the basic incompatibility between global capitalism and the lived expression of moral sentiments may become obvious for the first time. (Olson, 2006, 2005) For example, the failure to engage this moral sentiment has radical implications, not the least being consequences for the planet. Within the next 100 years, one-half of all species now living will be extinct. Great apes, polar bears, tigers and elephants are all on the road to extinction due to rapacious growth, habitat destruction, and poaching. These human activities, not random extinction, will be the undoing of millions of years of evolution (Purvis, 2000). As Leakey puts it, “Whatever way you look at it, we’re destroying the Earth at a rate comparable with the impact of a giant asteroid slamming into the planet…” And researchers at McGill University have shown that economic inequality is linked to high rates of biodiversity loss. The authors suggest that economic reforms may be the prerequisite to saving the richness of the ecosystem and urge that “… if we can learn to share the economic resources more fairly with fellow members of our own species, it may help to share ecological resources with our fellow species.” (Mikkelson, 2007, p. 5)

While one hesitates imputing too much transformative potential to this emotional capacity, there is nothing inconsistent about drawing more attention to inter-species empathy and eco-empathy. The latter may be essential for the protection of biotic communities. Decety and Lamm (2006, p. 4) remind us that “… one of the most striking aspects of human empathy is that it can be felt for virtually any target, even targets of a different species.”

This was foreshadowed at least fifty years ago when Paul Mattick, writing about Kropotkin’s notion of mutual aid, noted that “… For a long time, however, survival in the animal world has not depended upon the practice of either mutual aid or competition but has been determined by the decisions of men as to which species should live and thrive and which should be exterminated. … [W]herever man rules, the “laws of nature” with regard to animal life cease to exist.” This applies no less to humans and Mattick rightly observed that the demands of capital accumulation and capitalist social relations override and preclude mutual aid. As such, neuroscience findings are welcome and necessary but insufficient in themselves. For empathy to flourish requires the elimination of class relations (Mattick, 1956, pp. 2-3).

Fourth, equally alarming for elites, awareness of this reality contains the potential to encourage “destabilizing” but humanity-affirming cosmopolitan attitudes toward the faceless “other,” both here and abroad. In de Waal’s apt words, “Empathy can override every rule about how to treat others.” (de Waal, 2005, p. 9) Amin (2003), for example, proposes that the new Europe be reframed by an ethos of empathy and engagement with the stranger as its core value. The diminution of empathy within the culture reduces pro-social behavior and social cohesiveness. Given the dangerous centrifugal forces of ethno-nationalism and xenophobia, nothing less than this unifying motif will suffice, while providing space for a yet undefined Europe, a people to come.

Finally, as de Waal observes, “If we could manage to see people on other continents as part of us, drawing them into our circle of reciprocity and empathy, we would be building upon rather than going against our nature.” (de Waal, 2005, p. 9) An ethos of empathy is an essential part of what it means to be human and empathically impaired societies, societies that fail to gratify this need should be found wanting. We’ve been systematically denied a deeper and more fulfilling engagement with this moral sentiment. I would argue that the tremendous amount of deception and fraud expended on behalf of overriding empathy is a cause for hope and cautious optimism. Paradoxically, the relative absence of widespread empathic behavior is in fact a searing tribute to its potentially subversive power.

Is it too much to hope that we’re on the verge of discovering a scientifically based, Archimedean moral point from which to lever public discourse toward an appreciation of our true nature, which in turn might release powerful emancipatory forces?


A highly abbreviated version of this paper appeared at Zmag (5/20/07). Helpful comments were offered by N. Chomsky, D. Dunn, M. Iacoboni, K. Kelly, S. Preston and J. Wingard. Thanks, per usual, to M. Ortiz.


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Varkey, P., Chutka, D.S. and Lesnick, T.G. (2006) “The aging game: improving medical students’ attitudes toward caring for the elderly,” J. Am. Med. Directors Assoc. 7, 224-229 in Decety, J. and Lamm, C. (2006).

Warneken, F. and Tomasello, M. (2006) “Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees,” Science, 311, No. 5765, pp. 1301-1303.

Williams, O. (1986) in Johnson, D. (Ed.) Justice and Peace Education. New York: Orbis.

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. Contact: Per usual, thanks to Kathleen Kelly, my in-house ed. Read other articles by Gary.

36 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. gerald spezio said on October 24th, 2007 at 9:39am #

    Poor Professor Olson is so damaged by years of studying academic political “science” that he can’t tell political-pie-in-the-sky solutions from verbose literary nonsense.

    Professor Olson has a deep message for the unempathetic.

    “Is it too much to hope that we’re on the verge of discovering a scientifically based, Archimedean moral point from which to lever public discourse toward an appreciation of our true nature, which in turn might release powerful emancipatory forces?”

    Hear ye about Archimedes and the big mental lever, as in Eric Fromm’s magisterial studies about non-penis-anti-envy-psycho-crotch etc.

    Just imagine the “release of powerful emancipatory forces” which in turn MIGHT ( just might? ) release everybody’s political bowels thereby evacuating once and for all the foul distorting boluses, pestilences, and unempathic peeyar misinformation driving us to be scumbags, species assassins, and downright mean murdering pricks in complete opposition to our true nature.


    Yup, keeping us from our true loving and affectionate natures , again!

    All of which leads to perdition and no more professorships unless of course you bring in the political science clowns with their magical Archemedian levers and deep literary solutions

    Turn, turn, turn, to everything there is a political “science” – but sometimes it takes a learned professor to tell you.

    Learned professor Olson further brilliantly contributes to his political science and new age magical thinking;
    “Paradoxically, the relative absence of widespread empathic behavior is in fact a searing tribute to its potentially subversive power.”

    It-ain’t-dere-but-it’s-dere-if-you-dare, as in Yogi Berra’s theory of political change and lovin’ good times ahead.

    So, Release me and let me love again, you dirty distorting elitist bastards whoever and wherever you are.

    Y’all just quit, I say!
    I hate you. You mean pricks, you.

  2. Mark Lyndon said on October 24th, 2007 at 3:01pm #

    This article was a pleasure to read.

    As it well describes, the evidence is overwhelming that feeling empathy is based in our genetics and is central to our ability to live in long term, willingly cooperative groups. What is most remarkable about human beings is not how violent we are, but how cooperative we are.

    But I’d like to emphasize two fundamental sources in our genetics that work against large scale cooperation and against empathy for distant people.

    First, Robert Hare, in “Without Conscience”, estimates that largely due to genetic variation, (or development differences made more likely due to genetic variations), about 1% of Americans, over 2 million, are incapable of experiencing empathy. They are the people who, if tested, would be found to be psychopaths. To clarify, a psychopath can be fully rational and even very intelligent, but fundamentally unable to understand why he or she should be concerned about consequences to anyone but themselves. Perversely, their lack of empathy and need to study people in order to be able to “pass” as normal enables many psychopaths to learn be extremely charming, and extremely effective manipulators, when they think it will benefit them. Psychopaths are estimated to be about 20% of our prison population, but most have not been convicted of a crime and live as our neighbors and fellow workers. These statistics makes a lot of news about bizarre, otherwise incomprehensible behavior of some business, political, and religious leaders, as well as serial murders and rapists, much more understandable.

    Second, being willing to risk injury and death to defend our group, and willingness to attack other groups that we think threaten us, is a very old, very robust, and highly honored part of our natural moral sentiments. It is an easily triggered response, and when triggered, can be very destructive. Further, our natural moral sentiments evolved in our ancestors when we lived in hunter gatherer groups of probably less than one hundred. Rational thought and cultural education is required for us to recognize the advantages of including bigger groups, and even all humans, in our perceived “group” and therefore worthy of being treated morally.

    Any secular morality derived from our new understandings must be able to take into account and function well with the sometimes genetic, and usually difficult to change, variations in people’s ability and inclination to feel empathy for each other. Fortunately, recent insights in game theory have defined strategies which work well to increase cooperation and decrease conflict whether participants are college students, governments, or computers. The science behind these strategies, as well as the science behind our understanding of the way our brains function, will be critical to development of a generally accepted secular morality.

    Thanks again for a fine article,

    Mark Lyndon

  3. Timothy Crow said on October 24th, 2007 at 3:08pm #

    Would anyone like to offer Mr. Spezio some empathy?

    There is, I suspect, as much Buddha nature in Mr. Spezio as there is in Noam Chomsky. Why there is so much difference between their respective methods of communication lies the mystery of the human mind. Is it merely education, personal experiences, poor toilet training perhaps? Is it because the actual modeling of empathy and compassion is becoming as rare as hen’s teeth–especially in society’s positions of power and leadership?

  4. gerald spezio said on October 25th, 2007 at 6:24am #

    Professor of political science, Gary Olson, has written an academic paper for wide eyed new agers – with more than 70 ponderous references in his bibliography.

    Is there any genuine digestible information here that will help an intelligent and inquiring citizen deal more effectively with an increasingly bizarre natural and political world?
    Or, is the pretentious professor delivering some sugary pablum for un-critical new agers?

    In short, I claim that Professor Olson’s “work” is most accurately labelled sorcery and witchcraft.
    It is not science.
    It is labeled “political science.”

    Because Chomsky, whom I respect, hath said that hard wiring of a so-called moral sentiment exists, does not in itself establish hard wired morality as a scientific fact.
    Let’s not forget that we are still arguing about Chomsky’s posited hard wiring for language acquisition!

    When Olson breathlessly quotes Iacoboni, Olson is presenting Iacoboni’s personal opinions – gigantic leaps and extrapolations from Iacoboni’s neurological research.

    “Iacoboni’s optimism is grounded in his belief that, with the popularization of scientific insights, these recent findings in neuroscience will seep into public awareness and “… this explicit level of understanding our empathic nature will at some point dissolve the massive belief systems that dominate our societies and that threaten to destroy us.” (Iacoboni, 2007, p. 14)”

    Iacoboni’s INSIGHTS are captivating, conceivable, and to many a splendid and wondrous claim.
    But surely these monumental world changing claims are not substantiated by adequate hard evidence.

    “Will seep into public awareness” and … “will at some point dissolve massive belief systems that dominate … ” is pure magical thinking at its shameful best.

    If Iacoboni or anybody comes up with substantiating evidence of “our empathetic nature”, I will be among the first to genuflect before Galileo’s heir, and not until.

    For example, after positing that a hard wired moral sentiment exists in humans, the crafty professor of smuggling in unsubstantiated premises states;

    ‘We’ve been systematically denied a deeper and more fulfilling engagement with this moral sentiment. I would argue that the tremendous amount of deception and fraud expended on behalf of overriding empathy is a cause for hope and cautious optimism. Paradoxically, the relative absence of widespread empathic behavior is in fact a searing tribute to its potentially subversive power.”

    This is a preposterous claim on its face.
    Professor Olson should know better than to endorse such juvenile and dead end foolishness.

    Donald Rumsfeld couldn’t have blathered better and laughingly said absolutely nothing.

    Our learned professor’s empty speculations about the coming of magical “Archimedian moral points” and more magical “levers” to inform public awareness and deliver us from disaster and ugly death is as phantasmagorical as Jesus arriving tomorrow with the rapture and we will all be dancing around Joanna Macy’s maypole.

    Olson insults both science and critical inquiry.
    His proposed salvation is best described as mentalistic and theological horseshit.

    I would suggest Colin Turnbull’s classic anthropological study, THE MOUNTAIN PEOPLE, as a powerful empirical antidote to such new age nonsense about hard wired moral sentiments and easy salvation from Archimedian levers, Jesus and the Holy Ghost, professorial personas, Freudian devils/saints, Jungian archetypes, or Daffy Duck.

  5. kikz said on October 25th, 2007 at 6:46am #

    excellent article!

    i’ve fwdd it to whatreallyhappened, and many other friends.

    thank you so much, mr. olson. 🙂

    our collective natural empathy has been, by design, subverted for centuries.. organized religion is at its core, and elite control of the mass media is it’s pinnacle.

  6. Mark Lyndon said on October 25th, 2007 at 1:05pm #

    My interest is focused on the progress being made toward a generally accepted scientific morality that is fully based only in reason and science. My appreciation to Dr Olson is in part because of his efforts to review the state of that science to what is potentially a new audience who should find it both interesting and useful.

    For readers interested in understanding where that science actually is, but don’t see references that strike their fancy in Dr Olsen’s list, they might start with:

    David Sloan Wilson, “Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way we Think about Our Lives”, 2007, is a very clearly written introduction to evolutionary theory which includes discussion of the evolutionary mechanisms behind the genetic basis of empathy and morality.

    Robert Axelrod, “The Evolution of Cooperation”, 1984, is a good introduction to the implications from game theory about the evolution of cooperation and morality. Game theory shows how, under the right conditions of multiple, long term interactions and lack of anonymity, cooperation and apparent “moral behavior” can arise spontaneously between competing college students, governments, or even computer programs. This is as you would expect if there actually is the potential to develop a generally accepted scientific morality. Cooperation Game Theory has come a long way since 1984, but I would still suggest starting here.

    Of course, you can also just do an or Google search on scientific morality.

    Mark Lyndon

  7. Max Fields said on October 25th, 2007 at 1:49pm #

    gerald spezio said on October 24th, 2007 at 9:39 am: “Because Chomsky, whom I respect, hath said that hard wiring of a so-called moral sentiment exists, does not in itself establish hard wired morality as a scientific fact. Let’s not forget that we are still arguing about Chomsky’s posited hard wiring for language acquisition!”

    I actually agree. My degree was in cognitive science and Chomsky was one of my main reasons for venturing into that domain long before it become rather (academically speaking) popular. But his linguistic and hard wire theories have long ago been trumped by most of physics and biology with the advant of complexity theory which moves cognitive science beyond Newtonian mechanics. Ecological sciences and new views of evolution have transcended the thinking of Chomsky’s deep structure lingistics and other “rationalists”.

    I recommend the works of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, impeccable scientists with a host of supporting empirical support as well as a large cast of equally estute scientists in the biological, social and physicial sciences to get an up to date view of where the thinking is regarding enactment and self-organization. For some of the philosophical underpinnings (philosophy still defines the problem for science) check out Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception and his predessors (Husserl, etc.).

    But beyond all this, is the fundamental question of the nature of being human; and the social aspects of humanity. For that I suggest a look at Andrew Schmookler’s The Parable of the Tribes:

    Personally, I find Chomsky’s political writings some of the more lucid and, occasionally, provocative. That he relies on a universal morality seems to me to be very sound as a means for framing geopolitical, local and personal actions. But it needn’t be considered hard wired – and in fact it’s unlikely.

  8. gerald spezio said on October 26th, 2007 at 6:28am #

    Max, it is always so much easier to agree about some scientifically and factually substantiated position.

    Too bad that we couldn’t have similar approaches and possible agreements about politically loaded and propagandized positions.

    It worries me greatly that many good young people are being trained in the nefarious arts of subterfuge and obfuscation.

    Professor Olson is either just plain dumb or consciously posturing academic and spouting outright sorcery.

    It terrifies me that good people fall for such blatant no-real-content schuck.

    Some weeks ago here on DV you endorsed triple agent and smiling scoundrel David Korten and his preposterous new age Goddess nonsense.

  9. Max Fields said on October 26th, 2007 at 6:44am #

    gerald spezio, I don’t mind a recognition of some common ground. The difference seems to lay with how we push the argument. I don’t think either of us will find common ground there.

    Calling Korten a “triple agent and smiling scoundrel” is a specious argument. If you were to say, he has some points but they are colored by such and such and thus undermines his whole argument – I might agree. Since Korten is not as well known as some (unlike, say Thomas Friedman who I relentlessly trash) I think it behoves you to be more specific – please. I do think Korten has provided a sound contempt for free trade market fundamentalism (counter T. Friedman) and a genuine positive alternative.

  10. gerald spezio said on October 26th, 2007 at 8:55am #

    Korten’s work and new age book, The Great Turning, is based entirely on the completely discredited Goddess Theory of Marija Gimbutas, who admitted that she made up the whole Goddess tripe from her artsy-fartsy imagination.
    There is no evidence to support the Goddess Theory.
    It is impossible for Korten NOT to know this.
    Why would the son-of-a-bitch-and-CIA-agent want you to believe it?

    Rianne Eisler, another of Korten’s new age authorities, may be a feminist rage, but she is also a complete fool by any rational and scientific standard.
    Her work and books are beyond-belief-stupid.

    Korten was an air force officer and psy-ops whore in Vietnam.
    Korten was a CIA and USAID henchman and hack for years in the Phillipines and elsewhere over the globe.
    Korten is funded by the Ford Foundation whorehouse.
    Korten’s wife is a honcho at the Ford Foundation today.

    Korten’s appointed task from above is to de-politicize the new age left.
    He lectured in my town over a year ago and some getting along in years feminists pissed their pants from titillating excitement over the coming Goddess and earth community.

  11. Doug Tarnopol said on October 26th, 2007 at 12:56pm #

    I’m not an expert in these areas, but I have some background in evolution and the history of biology. I tend to cringe a bit at any kind of biologically determinist argument, even if I like the conclusion. When all is said and done, this is what we know:

    (1) Humans can act horribly.
    (2) Humans can act wonderfully.
    (3) And everything in between.

    Now, teasing out or separating the biological from the psychological, sociological, economic, political, etc., reasons for (1), (2), and (3) above is basically impossible.

    Moreover, it’s unnecessary. We all know that well-fed, secure people who interact in ways that encourage empathy, as Roy and Solomon point out, tend to act more in the (1) mode. Thus, who really cares about the provenance? I’m willing to believe that all aspects of human nature have a biological substrate at some point in the evolutionary past — in fact, there is no other rational alternative. I don’t see what that does for us, and sounds like “God made us good/bad” in new garb.

    Specifically, if ideological beliefs can swamp supposedly biological impulses, then shouldn’t we concentrate on ideology, not on biology? If you accept the premise of the article, then the obvious conclusion is that ideological commitments at the reflective, deliberative level have and do swamp our biological inheritance (even if you assume that inheritance to be lily-white). Then why talk about biology at all? Given we really don’t know much about these things — as Chomsky and Lewontin have convincingly argued in the case of the evolution of cognition and language; why does ethics get a free pass? — the natural and rational thing to do is to encourage good behavior by structuring society in such a way — all of us, together. I don’t see why we need a scientific “reason” to do so: simple survival requires it.

    So, we don’t need biological sanction for more just societies. As far back as Confucius, the principle of universality has sufficed, potentially, to organize a just society (or “juster”). A little reciprocal altruism, a little enlightened self-interest, and — above all — a media and educational system that celebrates such values, is the locus of action. I realize that the author ultimately agrees; I disagree with the usefulness of reaching to the genome, especially for the above reasons.

    In conclusion, I guess I have two main points: (1) I don’t really think we can possibly know in any rigorous sense what our “real” evolutionary inheritance is on questions of ethics. (2) I don’t think it much matters, as all we need is the phenomenological or “phenotypic” data to make the necessary changes, many of which are noted in this excellent article. It’s a matter of encouraging the better angels of our nature; no need to deny the obvious devils in that nature, too. Totting up which side — good or bad — predominates is not only impossible but pointless. Let’s assume human nature turns out to tilt toward the devils. So? The result is still the same: organize society to encourage good behavior. Assume, for example, that people are selfish rational profit-maximizers. OK, fine: the challenge is still to convince people of the obvious truths that they are in great danger from global warming and nuclear weapons — they don’t need to care about anyone else; convince them of that (overcome propaganda, that is), and they will act. Convince them that grabbing all you can for yourself and your family will ultimately doom your progeny, and possibly you yourself, to privation or death — and then there will be change. No need for empathy, which is a damn good thing, given that we really have no idea which side predominates, and in what percentage of the population of the species — another key issue. If ethics is a trait, then it varies in the population, even if you assume the author’s premise.

    We should all remember that one undeniable evolutionary inheritance is a brain (or mind, if you like) that is amazingly flexible, especially when it comes to ethics, situational or otherwise. Sure, evolution throws down the frame, but we don’t know the dimensions of that frame, and likely never will — certainly not in time to save ourselves! — nor do we know what’s contained inside the frame in any detail, aside from behavior we can observe.

  12. Max Shields said on October 26th, 2007 at 1:54pm #

    gerald spezio, so your sources for this stuff is from where?

  13. gerald spezio said on October 27th, 2007 at 9:09am #

    Max, anybody who read either one or both books couldn’t miss it.
    Need you ask if the earth is a sphere?

    Eisler’s ridiculous discussion of the Goddess nonsense, The Chalice and the Blade, is as moronic a book as was ever published.
    No intelligent person could ever endorse such breathless and blatant incompetence.

  14. Max Shields said on October 27th, 2007 at 6:24pm #

    gerald spezio, “…anybody who read either one or both bookds couldn’t miss it. Need you ask if the earth is a sphere?”

    It would be more honest to simply say you have not source for your statements. What you provide is a non-substantiated argument.

    As far as Eisler, I’ve never used her name (though I know of her) except at this very “moment”.

  15. gerald spezio said on October 28th, 2007 at 5:00am #

    It is impossible to discuss Korten w/o Eisler.
    Rianne Eisler permeates Korten’s book.
    She is the primary exploiter and publicist for Gimbutas’s artsy Goddess crap about dominator models versus nurturing feminine models.
    Nobody who actually read Korten could possibly miss this.
    Brit art critic Merlin Stone is another of Korten’s “authorities” for his total emphasis on the “Goddess.
    All these cites are in Korten’s own bullshit book for new age brain damage.

    Who are you working for, Max?

  16. Max Shields said on October 28th, 2007 at 8:16am #

    geraldo spezio, “Who are you working for, Max?”

    I was about to ask you that question.

    Neither Korten’s Great Turning nor his When Corporations Ruled are based on Eisler. Yes, he makes reference to her work.

    But again, as in so much of many of your posts, you incriminate through implication and conjecture. So, while Korten makes clear arguments against corporate preditory globalization, you have him a CIA agent!!!

    If you make those kinds of claims with no substance or pointing to specific remarks or references there is no one who is worthy of noting that you would not fantasize conspiracy and linkage to whatever organization you conjure up. Such pronouncements, as yours, are the tools of extreme propagandists.

    Yes, gerald spezio, who do you work for?

  17. Dave Silver said on October 28th, 2007 at 8:42am #

    Brother Olson

    If you agree with Chomsky that we arehard wired for mprality and other good things why do we have to “engage” it? Why does imperalism,
    war crimes and genocide continue?
    Wat would Marx think or say about this?

    Dave Silver

  18. Larry Gambone said on October 28th, 2007 at 10:49pm #

    Hey, Spitzio, maybe you should give some evidence for your claims about Olsen, Eisler, Gimbutas etc. Undoubtedly there are incorrect aspects to their theories, but using bar room language impresses no one. We see this all the time with far-right propagandists either of the neocon or old fashioned nazi variety, not to mention Maoist extremists of the left.

  19. gerald spezio said on October 29th, 2007 at 6:55am #

    Paisano Gambone, a good start unmasking Goddess claims is here;

  20. Larry Gambone said on October 29th, 2007 at 12:30pm #

    Ha, The “Skepical” Inquirer. One may as well read Der Sturmer to understand Judeaism. The SI are not skeptics, they are dogmatic 18th Century Rationalists. I am a skeptic – which means keeping an open mind, not a closed one.

    I have read this sort of criticism before, some of it has weight, a lot of it does not. All they do is crudely trash what they don’t like, just like any other bunch of fanatics.

  21. gerald spezio said on October 29th, 2007 at 1:34pm #

    As far as anybody knows, there isn’t any connection between P. G. Davis’s book and Judaism.
    Gambone, your so-called open mind may be so open that everything has fallen out of it.

  22. Max Shields said on October 29th, 2007 at 7:15pm #

    Larry, I’m with you. Spezio is prone to grasp for the straw to make his point, and in doing so blowing out of proportion the whole point Korten makes.

    He’s yet to provide evidence of Korten’s involvement in anything remotely resembling the CIA, and other outlandish pseudo-points. Instead it’s the old red herring trick.

    For a little background on Korten:

    I must say this is taking us far and yond from the post.

  23. hp said on October 30th, 2007 at 3:54pm #

    Hell, just like more laws equals less justice, more words equals less truth.

  24. Pavel said on November 4th, 2007 at 9:29am #

    Ok, just as I’m getting comfortable with Chomsky’s Universal Grammar and Hauser’s “Universal Moral Grammar” by reading all these articles from the Scientific American, you’re telling me that, by and large, the jury is still out there?? Are you saying the following passage from the article in question is wrong? And if so, can anybody post a link to a credible paper discussing the current state of affairs on the topic. Thank you very much.

    ” As a recent editorial in the journal Nature (2007) put it, it’s now “unassailable fact” that human minds, including aspects of moral thought, are the product of evolution from earlier primates. According to de Waal, “You don’t hear any debate now.” In his more recent work, de Waal plausibly argues that human morality—including our capacity to empathize—is a natural outgrowth or inheritance of behavior from our closest evolutionary relatives”

  25. wilfred knight said on November 9th, 2007 at 11:56am #

    Dr Olson claims using lots of big words that empathy, wired into our mammalian brains, is the pre-eminent force of life, just waiting for release from its suppression by capitalism, religion etc.
    Well , humans are hard-wired with lots of other competing traits. Violent aggression against beasts and rival groups and sexual rivals,obviously played an enormous role in our evolutuionary survival. These traits lie untapped below the surface just waiting to blow with appropriate stimulation, commonlty seen in road rage etc.
    Perhaps the 1% of psychopaths amongst us, are perpetuated because of evolutionary advantage.
    Knights of yore, and leaders? Ghngis Khan, Stalin, Alexender etc were probable psychopaths. & perhaps leadership required such lack of empathy and conferred evolutionary advantage.both to the individual and society.
    We humans are are complex of competing emotions.
    Some feel that our very sense of self evolved from neural circuits mimicking others behavior, in order to predict it. This obviously has survival value, and gave rise to our growth of consciousness. Could empathy be just a recursive offshoot of these circuits ?

  26. Christopher Rothlind said on November 11th, 2007 at 12:11pm #

    I had high hopes for Dr. Olson’s synopsis of neurologically based empathy research’s implications for humanities. Then came: “…exposure to certain new truths about empathy–hard evidence about our innate moral nature–poses a direct threat to elite interests…the capitalist machine…elitist manipulation…” etc.

    I was surprised that no one has challenged Olsen’s Marxist ideologizing about “Capitalism” and “exploitation.” That kind of party-talk discredits the very idea of critical autonomy in a thinker. When you hear the word ‘capitalism’ the first thing that should come to mind is ‘opportunity,’ not predation/exploitation. Wealth, not suppression/manipulation. The only ghost in a machine here is the spectre of Marx’s ideology rattling around in Dr. Olson’s creed-infested neuro-sphere. Unfortunately, it appears to be part of his “hard-wiring” and over-rides both empathy with non-infested mass-market-machine-minds and his own potential for critical reflection.

    People who talk about “genetic hard-wiring” of human beings don’t have a clue about what genes can or can not be said to “determine” about the behavior of that class of over-determined agents of action we call human beings. Why? Because giving reasons for something/anything, let alone the behaviors/choices of free agents, is not a form of causal explanation or prognostication (explanation in the natural-scientific sense). That was Immanuel Kant’s great discovery.

    Anyone can adopt scientific ideas and construct sentences with them, but to really appreciate the limitations of natural science, limitations which make it the effective and useful tool that it is in its own realm, requires some meta-scientific (is this not the meaning of Aristotle’s “metaphysics?”) theoretical orientation. Philosophy, in short. And Marx was the ultimate (and willful) non-philosopher.

    Every advance in empirical data accumulation, sadly, does not bring with it a sharpening of conceptual distinctions, which only critical (skeptical) minds contribute to the discussion. But a partisan of an ideology–totalitarian or not–obviously does not fit that bill.

    It’s time Dr. Olson liberate his mind from its oppression by Marxist ideology, however attentuated.

    The greatest evils have been committed in the name of saving and/or making humanity better. The question is always, how many lives are worth sacrificing?

    And let’s not forget: empathy can be suicide, given the right (the wrong!) circumstances.

  27. Roy Niles said on November 16th, 2007 at 4:57pm #

    Dr. Olson says: “I would argue that the tremendous amount of deception and fraud expended on behalf of overriding empathy is a cause for hope and cautious optimism. Paradoxically, the relative absence of widespread empathic behavior is in fact a searing tribute to its potentially subversive power.”

    He seems to have it backwards – empathy is more likely an organism’s cooperative defense or deterrence to fraud and deception rather than a subversive reaction to some natural or inherent viciousness.

  28. Solvei Blue said on November 18th, 2007 at 11:35pm #

    Well, fascinating. An electrifying read, in many respects. It resonates on several levels:

    1. That the expression of reciprocal service, known as love, is “life’s most rewarding experience” and “the only satisfying answer to the question of human existence.”

    2. That the commodification of experience that is encouraged, no, demanded by the current capitalist organization of society is at odds with that human desire to be rewarded, fulfilled, loved, loving… happy.

    Here I must take issue with Christopher Rothlind. He says: “When you hear the word ‘capitalism’ the first thing that should come to mind is ‘opportunity,’ not predation/exploitation. Wealth, not suppression/manipulation.”

    I saw a clever bumper sticker once. It said, “Free enterprise will destroy capitalism.” Free enterprise being those lovely ideas of opportunity and wealth for all. Capitalism being the system that muzzles the natural impulse towards those things (in certain peoples, in certain geographic areas) and instead encourages people to sell their labor to maquiladoras. You say, “That kind of party-talk discredits the very idea of critical autonomy in a thinker.” First, you should be able to judge for yourself whether Olsen has the capacity for independent critical thinking, regardless of whether he references Karl Marx or Adam Smith. Second, I noticed that you made no mention of the critique of structural inequity that is the hallmark of Marxist criticism. Thus, it seems to me that your objection to Olsen’s use of Marxist critique is based more on a fear of social or political ostracism than anything else.

    Reactionary anti-communism is, like, so 50 years ago.

    3. The seeming paradox of Olsen’s next-to-last paragraph. Think of it this way: repressive, patriarchal cultures expend tremendous amounts of energy in controlling and suppressing women’s desires. Take the work expended in these efforts as a testament to the energy and power of women’s desires, as well as to the potentially destabilizing effect that loosing the controls on women would have on such a patriarchal society. The absence of women acting in accordance with their desires is not evidence of the absence of women’s desires. I think the parallel is clear.

    …Please. It’s an analogy. Though I’m drawing parallels here, I’m not an eco-feminist; i.e., one who thinks that women are more naturally inclined towards wise environmental stewardship than men.


  29. Roy Niles said on November 19th, 2007 at 2:18pm #

    Excellent commentary by Solvei, whose ending analogy would be apt if Dr. Olson had not referred to empathy as having a potentially subversive power. It was a poor choice of a phrase perhaps, but to use it to make a final point makes the choice seem even poorer.

    “Subversive powers” are more likely to come from the predatory aspects of nature that empathy was designed (by evolution rather than intent) to protect most developing organisms against. It allows organisms, both individually and collectively, to form bonds when and where danger to one can be felt by others and thus recognized as danger to all in that same grouping.

  30. Roy Niles said on November 20th, 2007 at 10:29pm #

    OK, here’s what really bothers me about this piece – its effectiveness rests on the clearly stated premise that empathy is somehow the equivalent of love. And somehow that translates into empathy as a moral value, or as the beginning of moral sensibility in some fashion.
    At the risk of repeating earlier comments, it needs to be emphasized that empathy is not the equivalent of either love or morality. It may facilitate the application of an innate sense of justice, and the development of that sense, but by itself it is neither moral nor just. Nor is its lack, in my view, the precursor of immorality or injustice.
    Lions who share in the zebra kill will appear to have minimal empathy for the zebra – or for the hungry hyena – or for the pride of lions that missed out on that kill. But it has been argued that they do in some sense feel the pain of the zebra during the kill, which might affect the act or method of killing, but more because of the shared sensations than the triggering of any innate sense of justice.
    And yet empathy may be the path designed in part for the application of such innate rules for mutual survival – to be used if the lion and zebra shared a common enemy perhaps – such as man. Yet lions and zebras won’t likely find what we would call love in the process.
    A path does not necessarily have but one purpose for existence and but one use or user once it does exist. And the path itself should not be confused with the goal anticipated by its users, even though its value will be measured by whatever bounty it gives us passage to.
    So it seems fair to say we have love in part because we have empathy. But because we have empathy, we don’t automatically have the love that it clearly helps to facilitate.
    To quote some sentences lifted from Wikipedia on this subject: “Empathy certainly does not guarantee benevolence. The same ability may underlie schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the pain of another entity) and sadism (being sexually gratified through the infliction of pain or humiliation on another person).”
    More reason to suspect that lions take additional pleasure in seeking out the company of zebras. But the type of love involved may not be mutual.

  31. Solvei Blue said on November 24th, 2007 at 9:54am #

    You have a good point, Roy Niles. Just because you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes doesn’t mean you’re going to walk a mile carrying that person’s backpack.

    I’m still fascinated by that next-to-last paragraph, though. It seems to me that wartime censorship exists primarily to remove opportunities for empathy (both for the in-group and the out-group) from our daily political discourse. Cases in point: the ban on coffin photos, the imprisonment without charges of Pulitzer-prize winning AP photographer Bilal Hussein.

    Steven Pinker posits a decline in violence over the history of humankind, both in the long and short run. Go to, check out the video, and see for yourself before you draw a conclusion. Agree or disagree, he present his case well.

  32. Roy Niles said on November 24th, 2007 at 11:27am #

    I agree with Pinker’s analysis 100% (or maybe 99% would be more prudent).
    Certainly empathy facilitates cooperative efforts, and while it doesn’t equate with love in my view, it is clearly an impediment to hatred.

  33. Jonathan von Ranson said on December 21st, 2007 at 9:16am #

    I sense a tender wishfulness in the article, as in most of the commentaries on it (and, indeed, behind the thought system — science — from which all of it springs) that speaks of our collective desire to rise above and see, and by seeing, somehow achieve wholeness with what is. I say tender, because it’s the Earth-creature spirit in us motivating all the conceptual effort; it somehow gives off that longing vibe to me. Perhaps all this effort at personally merging with the truth — conceptually — which I, too, habitually engage in — is the unfortunate consequence of being part of the pillar of exploitation of what-is, called civilization. Could this be non-adaptive behavior on our part? Leaping to solutions, I doubt there’s any organization imaginable, beyond a time-tested, truly indiginous tribe, that does live in a fully participatory, reciprocal (to use a key term in Olson’s touching discussion) relationship with all that is. If I’m right, and our reductions and abstractions are an effort to recover that powerful membership, there may be a more direct way than through increasingly complex thought and study.

  34. Christopher Rothlind said on January 2nd, 2008 at 2:48pm #

    Is morality qua empathy “rooted” in biology? Is there a human behavior that is not rooted in biology? If biology is the account we give of the life-forms of Organism as well as those process “themselves,” then obviously all behavior is so rooted. Is the vault of a cathedral “rooted” in physics? What are we trying to explain? It’s a question of what facts your theory is selecting for and what phenomena are commensurate with your explanation.
    Evolutionary explanations (weaker than a prognostication) of human behavior have a limited function, they say: traits get transmitted. We have to be careful that we don’t ascribe some sort of sapiential agency to the circumstance that some human behaviors get people killed-off while others don’t. The very term ‘natural selection’ is unfortunately anthropomorphic and quasi-final. There is no selecting going on, strictly speaking, there is a non-occurance of individual extinction-before-propagation, or–survival. Or have I completely misunderstood?
    Natural selection is chance transmittal, but show me natural selection working in humans in the absence of human agency! A crucial factor in the equations of genetic explanations of behavior (for what else is all the talk about the natural selection of morality?), namely our environment, has been mediated by cultural institutions (language) for thousands of years, in which time morality as we understand it (in our post Axial-period perspective), has come into being.
    If all we are talking about is what tends to keep members of a species propagating before extinction (i.e., survival), it should not be forgotten that infanticide was also a survival (by and for the fit)-strategy. Being able to recognize your enemies and kill them would probably rate pretty high on the list of traits-conducive-to-not-dying-off. Maybe someday we’ll discover the biological hard-wiring for that too…
    What is the relation between empathy and ‘morality?’ Is morality the ideal of altruism tout court? or is it just the state of social consciousness, the ethos of social justice, in any given period? If the latter, then polygamy, male and female circumcision, capital punishment etc., are also forms of social conscience or morality.
    Empathy is experienced by all “higher” mammalian life-forms (Elephants, horses, dolphins, primates, etc.). It is, after all, just a form of emotional perception. I can feel empathy with someone I am about to feed to the lions. There is a hiatus between empathic perception and moral behavior. Otherwise cruelty (the enjoyment of another’s suffering) would follow as arbitrarily (pre-morally) as any act of solicitude. Morality would be a matter of chance or instinct, which contradicts our understanding of it. In fact, a mammal who instinctively protects or nurtures could not be called moral at all in our sense of the term. Something to remember lest we rush unthinkingly into noble-savage territory. Even an embryo is in ‘sympathy’ with the physiology of its mother (see Hegel’s Anthroplogy). All sentient beings are influenced by intangible vibes and cosmic-waves. Not our attunement or empathic affiliation needs to be ‘explained’ by biological determinants, but rather our ability to disassociate ourselves from our own clans/families.
    The larger issue here is agency vs. instinct. What is the biological correlate in mammalian behavior if not instinct–pre-reflexive, automatic behavior? The interesting question is: is empathy a reflex of the same order as fight-or-flight? Once you introduce reflection and the higher forms of institutionally mediated self-consciousness, biological accounts have very little to contribute beyond he positing of a vague correlationalism that explains everything and nothing.
    Why doesn’t our “deep-seated moral intuition produce” (my emphasis) world peace? Olson asks. There are so many things wrong with this question I don’t know where to begin. For one, the instinct to kill one’s enemies is no more or less “deep-seated” or “hard-wired” than the “automatic neurobiological trait” of empathy. It’s only our infantilising egalitarianism and belief in some ideal state-of-nature that deludes us about that. Goodall discovered empathy in chimps? well, she also discovered polygamy, rape, infanticide and clan-warfare. But that’s probably just some “overriding” elitist-capitalistic belief-system alienating the chimps from their true chimp-natures. Trying to answer a political questions with neurophysiological facts is what happens when positivists start opining about politics.
    World peace is elusive because enough human beings are rapacious, murderous and shameless–what used to be called evil–to occasion endless conflict. Human history is not on some biologically determined trajectory to eliminate scarcity and war, “artificial” or otherwise. Where does this naive optimism about man’s self-perfectibility come from? Surely not the study of human history.
    Capitalism doesn’t benefit everyone equally; it’s a tool some wield successfully and others not so much. Culture (as a cursory glance at Egyptian, Mayan, Mesopotamian, Hellenistic civilizations etc., will attest) depends on wealth, which depends on the right to acquire property. The Soviet experiment should have taught beyond any doubt that state-imposed material equality (after a period of property confiscation) has a demoralizing effect on the entrepreneurial spirit. No state should be the business of imposing equality of conditions and reapportioning wealth legally acquired by individual initiative. That would be a very strange form of justice indeed. Men are equal before the law, but there is no mandate in the constitutioN obligating the state to bring about conditions of equality. It says men are equal under the laws such as they are, not the laws as they would be under ideal conditions (if philosopher-kings ruled!).
    If the upshot of Gary Olson’s gospel of equal portions for all God’s rainbow colored children is that it is better to be than to have because being alienated is worse than feeling gratified and taken care-of–then count me in. But we don’t need to subscribe to some vast socialist conspiracy theory about world-history to arrive at that, do we? Capitalism, as all who are not blinded by communist conspiracy theories will appreciate, is also about reciprocity. One man’s ‘exploitation’ is another man’s opportunity.
    Christ’s admonition to love your neighbor as yourself, Fromm be damned, is not especially defeated by any capitalist forces in the modern world but by the forces of terrestrial being-in-the-world per se. If capitalist forces (whatever they may be) necessarily “estrange” us from ourselves then how does one explain all the well-adjusted capitalists past and present? Granted, accruing capital and consumerism don’t make everyone equally happy and may even alienate some people (the have-nots), the forces of capitalist society are no more incompatible with love than the forces of parchee-see are. Capitalism is not pathological narcissism!
    It’s a competitive world out there, guys! But that doesn’t excuse you from generating as much wealth as you can–a duty, as any observant Hindu will corroborate, that’s just part of life’s four stages. A duty to one’s family.
    Solvei? if your still reading, “reactionary” would be any criticism of communist ideology, which is as far left as you can get. “So fifty-years ago” implies that ideologies come in and out of fashion like hair-styles, but a bad argument is a bad argument regardless of when it was made. Of course, we all know that communism is immune to criticism–which is why it is more like a faith than a theory and why enlightened minds of the last century (Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers, Barzun, Karl Löwith, Eric Voegelin, etc.) rejected it. Show me one communist regime that hasn’t led to totalitarianism and mass-murder. Apologists for communism are no better than fascists who say Hitler’s racism was a perversion of the glorious revolution still to come. Talk about massive belief systems “overriding neurobiological traits!”
    Thank God they do over-ride them! Buddhism, Vedanta, Christianity, Greek Philosophy to name a few did just that with their gospels of enlightenment, compassion, grace, pacifism, virtue, etc. But such systems never do anything in abstraction from their individual carriers, with all their short-comings, regardless of how they are ‘wired.’ Belief systems filter our perceptions of reality, to that extent they change it. They exert influence, not some billiard-ball style causality. Human behavior is not inevitable and a theory of politics (let alone a biological theory of human motivation) is not politics as we are obliged to practice in media res.

  35. james Cornelio said on February 10th, 2008 at 8:05pm #

    My God (if you’ll pardon the expression), such fuss and bother over something so simple. Philosophy 101 paired with a moderate level of wakefulness has taught me that man’s nature, and the natural world we inhabit, is dualistic. So, BOTH love and hate, good and evil, pleasure and pain—and everything in between—are essential components of who we are and what we are meant to experience. Why obsess so over whether “absence” or presence proves that the heart, ultimately, shall grow fonder? And when will those in a thrall to their 21st century slide rules wake to the endemic cynicism born of the myopia caused thereby? In lieu of all the folderol of “neuroscientific empathy experiments” and the la-di-da of the “highly sophisticated thought controls” of capitalist democracies”, far greater prophets and sages than those speaking or spoken about above have already said it all in the simple, timeless and profound words, of “love thy neighbor as thyself”. With that, who doubts we become more perfect, more whole and, yes, more divine?

  36. rick robens said on March 29th, 2008 at 6:18pm #

    A dispute arose over the meaning of empathy and the ability to empathize. As a mere Health teacher situated in an office of English teachers, it was difficult to defend my stance among individuals that are more knowledgeable in language and literature than I. Their literal interpretation of empathy includes the necessity “to empathize one has to have been in the same or similar situation as the individual they empathize with”. I have read countless definitions and vehemnently argued that the term defined does not include “the need to have been in a similar or same situation” as a prerequisite to having the ability to empathize with an individual. All individuals that have a legitiamate understanding of the term are welcome to provide their input. Thank You in advance for addressing this matter.