The rise of Homo Empathicus
March 1, 2010
I’m adopted and so are my brothers. When I was born I beamed a lot and within weeks was matched with a family. But one of my older brothers spent the first seven months of his life bouncing around in foster care. Five different foster families returned him because he wouldn’t stop crying.
My mother was the first to hold him like she meant it, and that’s when he relaxed and discovered smiling. He was home. My dad told me that.
At the time, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care was every parent’s Bible. Still, I sometimes wonder if Spock’s message was lost on the other families my brother didn’t click with. He encouraged parents to trust their instincts, show empathy and pick up their kids when they were upset. Mum read his book, but only because his research confirmed her take on life.
My dad, in case you’re wondering, didn’t read Spock (this was back when men still wore fedoras and trench coats and women donned aprons without an ironic grin, meaning: their two worlds never crossed). Had he read it, I don’t think he would have thrown a steaming diaper out the nursery window. “I didn’t know where I was supposed to put it,” he admitted years later. It landed with a thud on the front lawn and my mother retrieved it when she returned home from the supermarket.
But back to my brother’s crying marathon. This was 1964 and there were still a lot of mothers, especially those influenced by know-it-all grandmothers, who adhered to the old school wisdom on child rearing that said too much affection would turn babies into needy, clingy adults. Let’em cry until there are no more tears, they’d say before returning to their euchre hand or Ed Sullivan. I think that happened to my brother, until he found the right family.
This hands-off approach was established in the foundling hospitals that warehoused orphaned and abandoned infants at the turn of the last century. Here fighting germs was more important than nurturing, explains Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilization. Being a detached and clinical caregiver was a holdover from the 18th century view of human nature: the one that said from the moment we’re born we’re rational and autonomous beings and should be cared for in such a way to ensure we continue to be independent and self-sufficient. My brother balked at this approach to human nature.
Today when we pick up a baby, we’re elated when we can get them to smile at us. Did you see that? we cheer, like we’ve just spotted a shooting star. As a culture, we understand the power of eye contact and touching, so when we reach out to a child it’s as much for us as it is them. But this approach is recent, and it’s largely due to the influence of science.
After centuries of living our lives under the assumption that we’re all sinners, and if not sinners then detached automatons, and if not automatons then self-serving hoarders and pleasure seekers, scientists are now finding that an empathic disposition is embedded in our biology (as it is with several other species of the mammalian kingdom, including monkeys). Biologists talk of “mirror neurons” lighting up in the premotor cortex of the brains of humans and monkeys when we feel empathy for another. This would explain why when one baby cries others in the adjacent cribs chime in, or why when an Olympic skater weeps because she’s thinking of her dead mother, tears spill down our faces too. Our tendency to match behavior is “involuntary” and “automatic,” say the experts, a “primary adaptive function.” (keeners, you can follow up on this in Rifkin, p. 112; he has amazing end notes citing all the recent studies).
But this response wasn’t described as a biological phenomenon until the 1980s, and surely we’ve been crying and caring for oneanother since the dawn of time. Rifkin figures empathy got pushed aside by historians and philosophers with a more bleak view of human nature. For a long time history only focused its lens on the pathology of power, he says. “More often than not [it] was made by the disgruntled and discontented, the angry and rebellious — those interested in exercising authority and exploiting others.” Now, with the encouragement of science we’re shifting our approach and finding kindred spirits among our fellow creatures. “Suddenly, our sense of existential aloneness in the universe is not so extreme.”
Rifkin thinks the deterioration of the environment may be forcing us to change the way we relate to one another (a future blog post, for sure). What researchers are learning about the way we evolve changes our most basic thinking about what it means to be a human being, he says.
It makes you wonder, as Rifkin does, if we really need to be “sending out radio communications to the far reaches of the cosmos in the hopes of finding some form of intelligent and caring life when what we [we’re] desperately seeking already exists and lives among us here on Earth”?