Empathy is an interesting thing. It causes me to behave in a way that seems at first glance to be against my own self interest. But it is?
I have been pondering this. Empathy is at the core of what makes us human. We are so social, as social as any creature on the planet. And we are fairly unique in having empathy.
One guy I love to listen to is Jeremy Rifkin, who talks about empathy a lot. As Rifkin points out, empathy is something we are quite selective about. We tend to have more empathy for some folks than others. In the beginning, humans really only had empathy for their own family group, and regarded all other humans as hostile. (Paleolithic humans still live in pretty much this same way today.) These humans had tremendous empathy for their own family members. But for others, not so much.
Enter religion. As Rifkin points out, religion gave humans a way to expand their empathy set: By identifying another creature as being part of my religious group, I get to have more empathy for that person. I have seen this play out in my own life and the life of my family. For example, there was recently a flood in our area, and some folks we knew lost everything. My wife and I know these people because of religious affiliations from the past. As a result, we gave them clothes, food, etc. Another family down the street who was not in our religious group, we did not even care to look in on them.
So, this family is inside our empathy set, which is defined, at least in part, by religion.
Given that empathy causes me to give away things I need and make other sacrifices, the question is: How did empathy arise in human consciousness? I think I have an answer for that one.
Assume a proto-humanoid male is in the rain forest in some ancient time. He has an interesting mutation: He has developed what Rifkin calls “mirror neurons”. That is, when he sees another creature who he identifies as being like him who is having some kind of experience (say intense pain), his neurons light up in exactly the same manner as the creature who is suffering. In this way, this individual experiences (to a certain extent) the suffering of the other creature.
This causes our male humanoid (we will call him Lim) to suffer more than other humans around him. But he is also able to relate to the experiences of other humans better.
One day he comes upon a female. She is badly hurt! Her ankle is seriously twisted and bruised. She cannot walk at all. Worse, she has been stranded here for some time. She is very hungry, thirsty, and tired.
He finds that he feels some of her distress as well. He ponders what he has done when he has been in a similar situation. Suddenly, he has a remarkable idea. He will bring her food! So he goes to a place where he knows there are some ripe berries, and uses a large leaf to carry a bunch of these back to the female. She hungrily devours them with great joy.
Then he goes to the river and after some fumbling finds a hollow gourd that he fills with water. Again, she receives the water gratefully.
Finally, he lies down beside her and cuddles with her for warmth. In this manner, they fall asleep together.
The next day, she is feeling much better. She finds that she likes him, so they have sex. She continues to enjoy his company, so she stays with him, and they have several children, which inherit this odd mutation. Because these young children are able to exercise this new-found ability to form empathetic bonds, they make exceptionally good mates, and they easily find a partner, and in turn reproduce again.
And so on and so forth, until the entire human race runs on empathy.
Remember this, please: Evolution encourages one thing, and one thing only: Reproduction. Whatever improves the chances of reproduction (including the rearing of competent, viable adult offspring who can in turn reproduce) will be selected by evolution. Thus, although empathy seems to be against my best interests (in the sense of material belongings, time, etc.) it dramatically improves my chances of reproducing. In this way, the development of empathy is fairly obvious.