The Evolution of Empathy

Following the evolutionary interpretation of human history, all traits should be attributable to natural selection based on evolutionary advantage. This implies that even emotional characteristics played a role in early human survival. For example, the need to socialize which resulted in tribes that enabled progression and intellectualism. Therefore empathy, at some point in time, must have given humans an advantage over humans who were less altruistic.

But what kind of advantage could true altruism provide? While the feeling of empathy itself requires nothing but the loss of your emotional stability, empathy is often expressed through sacrificing something of yourself in order to help another in distress. This surrender of resources would appear to be a disadvantage, as those who were very empathetic may give up all they had. So was there some kind of understanding that those you helped would then help you? These are all small parts of a larger question I will attempt to address through my research paper.

The evolution of empathy could help to explain why humans in the modern era feel more or less empathy, as perhaps survival is not at such high risk. The critical question we face is what kind of evolutionary advantage did feeling and expressing empathy toward others give human beings that enabled their survival, and how could that translate to society today? This understanding is crucial to how we interpret interaction in a largely competition based society, and the shortcomings of empathy in an increasingly globalized world.

Potential Scholarly Sources

Dugatkin, Lee Alan. “Strange Bedfellows: A Russian Prince, A Scottish Economist, and the Role of Empathy in Early Theories for the Evolution of Cooperation.” Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution 320.7 (2013): 407-411. Print.

Fletcher, Jeffrey A., and Michael Doebeli. “A Simple and General Explanation for the Evolution of Altruism.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 276.1654 (2009): 13-9. Web.

Lion, Sébastien, and Sylvain Gandon. “Life History, Habitat Saturation and the Evolution of Fecundity and Survival Altruism.” Evolution 64.6 (2010): 1594-606. Web.

Nowak, M. A. (Martin A. )., and Roger Highfield. Supercooperators : Altruism, Evolution, and Why we Need each Other to Succeed. 1st Free Press hardcover ed. ed. New York: Free Press, 2011. Print.

Smith, Adam. “Cognitive Empathy and Emotional Empathy in Human Behavior and Evolution.” The Psychological Record 56.1 (2006): 3. Print.

58 thoughts on “The Evolution of Empathy

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