The Empathic Civilisation

Bestselling author, political adviser and social and ethical prophet Jeremy Rifkin investigates the evolution of empathy and the profound ways that it has shaped our development and our society.

In the last ten years there’s been some very interesting developments in evolutionary biology neurocognitive science, child development, research and many other fields which is beginning to challenge some of these long held shibboleths that we’ve had about human nature and the meaning of the human journey.

But, there is another frame of reference emerging in the sciences which is quite interesting and really challenges these assumptions. And with that, the institutions that we have created based on those assumptions our educational institutions, our business practices, our governing institutions, etc.

Let me take you back to the early 1990s sleepy little laboratory in Parma, Italy. And scientists had a MRI brain scanning machine on a macaque monkey as the macaque monkey was trying to open up a nut. They wanted to see how the neurons would light up. So the monkey’s trying to open up the nut, the neurons light up and just by serendipity (and this is how science sometimes happens), a human being walked in the laboratory. He [the human] was hungry and saw the nuts and opened up one of the nuts and tried to crack it open. The macaque monkey was totally shocked because, “who was this invader in his laboratory?” And he [the monkey] didn’t move, he just gazed at this human trying to open up the nut just like he had done a few seconds earlier. The scientist looked on the MRI brain scanner and the same exact neurons were lighting up when he observed the human being opening the nut as when the monkey opened the nut, and the scientists had not a clue as to what this was; they thought the MRI machine had broken. They then began to put MRI brain scanning machines on other primates, especially chimpanzees. Then they went to humans, and what they found over and over again is something called “Mirror Neurons”.

That is, that we are apparently soft-wired. Some of the primates, all humans, we suspect elephants, we’re not sure about dolphins and dogs…we’ve just begun. But all humans are soft-wired with mirror neurons so that, if I’m observing you, your anger, your frustration your sense of rejection, your joy, whatever it is, and I can feel what you’re doing. The same neurons will light up in me as if I’m having that experience myself.

Now, this isn’t all that unusual. We know if a spider goes up someone’s arm and I’m observing it going up your arm, I’m going to get a creepy feeling. We take this for granted, but we’re actually soft-wired to actually experience another’s plight as if we’re experiencing it ourselves.

Mirror neurons are just the beginning of a whole range of research going on in neuropsychology and brain research and in child development that suggests that we are actually soft-wired not for aggression and violence and self interest and utilitarianism that we are actually soft-wired for sociability ‘attachment’ as John Bowlby might have said. Affection, companionship, and that the first drive is the drive to actually ‘belong’. It’s an empathic drive.

What is empathy? Very complicated…

When little babies are in a nursery and one baby cries the other babies will cry in response, they don’t know why. That’s empathic distress; it’s built into their biology. Around two and half years of age, a child actually can begin to recognize himself in a mirror. That’s when you begin to mature empathy as a cultural phenomenon. Once a toddler can identify themselves, then they know that if they’re observing someone else have a feeling, they know that if they feel something, it’s because they’re feeling it because someone else has it. They’re two separate beings. Selfhood goes together with empathic development. Increasing selfhood, increasing empathic development.

Around eight years of age a child learns about birth and death they learn where they came from, that they have a one and only life that life is fragile and vulnerable and one day they’re gonna die. That’s the beginning of an existential trip. Because when a child learns about birth and death and they have a one and only life. They realize how fragile and vulnerable life is. It’s very tough being alive on this planet whether you’re a human being, or a fox navigating the forest. So when a child learns that life is vulnerable and fragile and that every moment is precious, and that they have their own unique history it allows a child then, to experience another’s plight in the same way. That, that other person or other being (could be another creature) has a one and only life, it’s tough to be alive and the odds are not always good.

So if you think about the times that we’ve empathized with each other or fellow creatures it’s always because we felt their struggle. We have the whiff of death in empathy, and the celebration of life. And we show solidarity with our compassion. Empathy is the opposite of Utopia. There is no empathy in Heaven, I guarantee you, I’ll tell you before you get there.

There isn’t any empathy in Heaven because there’s no mortality. There’s no empathy in Utopia because there is no suffering. Empathy is grounded in the acknowledgement of death and the celebration of life and rooting for each other to flourish and be. It’s based on our frailties and imperfections.

So when we talk about building an empathic civilization, we’re not talking about Utopia. We’re talking about the ability of human beings to show solidarity not only with each other but our fellow creatures who have a one and only life on this little planet. We are “homoempathicus”.
So here is the question: We know that consciousness changes in history; the way our brain is wired today is not the way a medieval serf’s brain would be wired, and their brain wouldn’t be the same as the wiring of a forager/hunter 30,000 years ago. So the question I asked at the beginning of this study six years ago is: How does consciousness change in history?

Imagine the following proposition: Is it possible that, we human beings who are soft-wired for empathic distress, is it possible we could actually extend our empathy to the entire human race as an extended family and to our fellow creatures as part of our evolutionary family and to the biosphere as our common community?

If it’s possible to imagine, then we may be able to save our species and save our planet. And when I say to you tonight, if it’s impossible to even imagine that I don’t see how we’re going to make it.

Empathy is the invisible hand. Empathy is what allows us to stretch our sensibility with another so that we can cohere in larger social units. To empathize is to civilize, to civilize is to empathize.

With forager/hunter societies, communication only extended to the local tribe and shouting distance. Everyone over in the next mountain was the ‘alien other’. So empathy only extended to blood ties. When we went to the great hydraulic-agricultural civilizations script allowed us to extend the central nervous system and to annihilate more time and space and bring more people together. The differentiation of skills and the increasing selfhood not only led to theological consciousness but empathy now extended to a new fiction.

And that is, instead of just associating with one’s blood ties we de-tribalised and began associations based on religious ties. So a new fiction Jews start to see all other Jews as extended family and empathize with Jews. Christians start to see all other Christians as extended family and empathize with Christians, Muslims the same.

When we get to the 19th century, the industrial revolution and we extend markets now to larger areas and create a fiction called ‘The Nation State’. And all of a sudden, the Brits start to see others in Britain as extended family the Germans start to see Germans as extended family, the Americans as Americans. There was no such thing as ‘Germany’. There was no such thing as ‘France’. These are fictions. But they allow us to extend our families so that we can have loyalties and identities based on the new complex energy communication revolutions we have that annihilate time and space.

But if we have gone from empathy in blood ties to empathy in religious associational ties to empathy based on national identification, is it really a big stretch to imagine the new technologies allowing us to connect our empathy to the human race at large in a single biosphere? And what reason would we stop here at the nation-state identity and only have ideological empathy or theological-based empathy or tribal-based blood-tie empathy?

We have the technology that allows us to extend the central nervous system and to think viscerally as a family, not just intellectually. When that earthquake hit Haiti and then Chile, but especially Haiti within an hour, the Twitters came out and within two hours, some cell phone videos – YouTube and within three hours the entire human race was in an empathic embrace, coming to the aid of Haiti.

If we were, as the enlightenment philosophers suggested materialistic, self-interested, utilitarian, pleasure-seeking it couldn’t account for the response to Haiti.

Apparently, 175,000 years ago in the Rift Valley of Africa there were about 10,000 anatomically modern human beings walking the grasslands, our ancestors. The geneticists located one data base woman, it’s a data baseline, apparently her genes passed to everyone in this room tonight, the other ladies didn’t make it. Gets even more strange…

They located a single male, this is a data baseline for genetics, and they call him the ‘Y chromosome Adam’ (apparently a very potent guy). His genes passed to everyone in this room. So here’s the news: 6.8 billion people, at various stages of consciousness theological, ideological, psychological, dramaturgical…we’re all fighting with each other with different ideas about the world and guess what? We all came from two people.

The Bible got this one right!

The point is we have to begin thinking as an extended family. We have to broaden our sense of identity. We don’t lose the old identities of nationhood, our religious identities and even our blood ties. But we extend our identities so we can think of the human race as our fellow sojourners. And our other creatures here as part of our evolutionary family and the biosphere as our community.

We have to rethink the human narrative. If we are truly homoempathicus, then we need to bring out that core nature. Because, if it doesn’t come out and it’s repressed by our parenting, our educational system, our business practice and government…the secondary drives come the narcissism, the materialism, the violence, the aggression.

If we can have a global debate let us start here from the British Royal Society for the Arts which apparently you are doing. To begin rethinking human nature. To bring out our empathic sociability so that we can rethink the institutions and society and prepare the groundwork for an empathic civilization.


RSA Animate – Empathic Civilisation:

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