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  • The Evolutionary Basis for Human Empathy, Compassion and Generosity

    Penny Spikins

    Chapter from the book: Spikins, P. 2022. Hidden Depths: The Origins of Human Connection.

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    How did we come to care so much for our loved ones, and to respond so readily to those in need? This chapter addresses these questions, considering our shared ancestry with other apes as well as selection pressures pushing our emotional dispositions more towards those of more distantly related primates and even social carnivores.

    If we look around at the types of empathy and emotional connections in other animals, we can gain some insight into the basic building blocks of our empathy, compassion and generosity. Studies of helping behaviour in other species can provide us with some important insights, for example. If we go back to basic roots as mammals we can see that this evolutionary history has formed the basis for our capacities for empathy, stemming from a need to respond to vulnerable young. However, human empathy, compassion and generosity is certainly more complex. This is where studies of our nearest living relatives, chimpanzees, provide insights into more complex capacities to share and to respond to others distress, as well as a certain social astuteness that is likely to have characterised the emotional capacities of our common ancestor living about 7 to 8 million years ago.

    What happened after our split with other primates? How our emotional capacities evolved after our lineage split with other apes is a challenging question. Here animal comparisons reveal a certain paradox. Some far more distantly related animals demonstrate a more human-like altruism and compassion than those that are most closely related to us, such as demonstrating a certain willingness to collaboratively care for offspring, or to care for vulnerable injured adults, for example. Understanding what prompted these kinds of changes in human ancestors who came after our split with the ancestors of chimpanzees demands considering how different species find the best ways of adapting to the ecological and social environments, and how this affects their emotional reactions to each other.

    Explaining the depth and breadth of our emotional connections to others remains a challenge. Building up our understanding of how and why human emotional motivations towards generosity and compassion emerged over the last few million years also depends on archaeological evidence of when helping and compassionate behaviours emerged, and why they became important, which is the focus of Chapter 2.

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    Spikins, P. 2022. The Evolutionary Basis for Human Empathy, Compassion and Generosity. In: Spikins, P, Hidden Depths. York: White Rose University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.22599/HiddenDepths.b

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    Published on Aug. 23, 2022