Global Empathy, part 1: humanity’s secret weapon

I believe empathy is the crucial factor to human survival – past, present and future. Don’t believe me? Yeah, I thought that might happen, so I’ve made this a two-parter. Since I love to talk about the state of the world today it’s only natural that I start with…. the past. 🙂

Neanderthals: stronger than us, and just as smart

Btw, I’ve drawn considerable inspiration on this from a fantastic PBS miniseries called The Incredible Human Journey, which I heartily recommend.

This time let’s go right back to the beginning: say, 38,000 BC (or so). We – humans – are  not very strong, but we’re resourceful. We use tools to do things our bodies can’t, and we’re social animals; we band together. We look out for the rest of our pack, and fight anything outside. Sure, other species travel in packs, too, but our tools give us an advantage…

…except against the Neanderthals. Neanderthals used tools just as much as we did. In fact, their tools might even have been better than ours. And their bodies were definitely stronger. When a Neanderthal pack fought a Homo Sapiens (modern human) pack, the Neanderthal pack probably won. Fighting to survive was killing us.

So how did we turn it around? We don’t know exactly, but the short answer* is: we took this banding-together concept to the next level. (*in the words of…  me; but I’m basing this on research done by actual anthropologists. If you’re interested in reading more, here’s a great start: Rethinking Neanderthals | Smithsonian.com.) We started leaving other Homo Sapiens alone – saving our strength to fight Neanderthals, or even joining forces against them – and gradually, we outnumbered them. We won the war by choosing our battles. But…

Our evolutionary advantage

But the big question is, how did come up with that cooperative strategy? Our instincts told us (heck, they still tell us) to fight anyone we don’t know. How did we override that? It wasn’t with intelligence. Our best thinking wasn’t enough to outweigh the “protect-my-family-against-everyone-else” impulse (indeed, it still isn’t). So how did we see the big picture?

Well, something else happened around the same time: we started making little sculptures and drawing symbols on rocks. And those bits of creativity, made by strangers, had a bizarre effect on our thoughts: they inspired emotions. Humans we’d never met could make stuff that made us feel. Suddenly, we saw beyond the pack. Our feelings broadened our sense of identity. We became a culture.

We all know feelings are a powerful motivator. They speak louder than thoughts, or instincts. When instincts told us to fight eachother, feelings told us we were in it together – and the feelings won. And so, thanks to our empathy with eachother, we survived!

Empathy: simplifying life for 40,000 years

We often describe feelings as complicated, but, in a fundamental way, feelings are a great simplifier. Precisely because they’re so strong, so impossible to ignore. Big-picture logic is subtle and sophisticated; it’s tough to find amidst all the noise, the more immediate choices. In our struggle for survival, empathy cranked the volume on the best choice. Empathy made us shut off our narrow-minded instincts and find our collective strength. By drowning out our thoughts, our feelings made us smarter.

So… jump forward to the 21st-century. Ingrained empathy + brand-new world of global communication = ???? What are your thoughts? I’ll tell you what I think… next time!

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