Are We Wired To Be Compassionate?

Dec 19, 2014
Originally published on December 9, 2016 8:12 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Just A Little Nicer.

About Robert Wright's TED Talk

Author Robert Wright says humans are not simply wired to be compassionate — we have evolved to feel compassion out of self-interest.

About Robert Wright

Robert Wright is the best-selling author of Nonzero, The Moral Animal and The Evolution of God.

He draws on his wide-ranging knowledge of science, religion, psychology, history and politics to figure out what makes humanity tick — and what makes us moral.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So compassion - good idea, we all like it, redemptive capacity, blah, blah, blah, right? I mean, this is not controversial stuff. We all want more common passion around us. So why is something so obviously simple so hard? Science writer Robert Wright says blame the reptilian part of your brain.

ROBERT WRIGHT: You see this all the time. I mean, like, road rage, you know? That's - road rage, the more you think about it the stupider it is, but the rage itself, the tendency to become enraged when someone disrespects you, is a natural one that made sense in a hunter-gatherer environment.

RAZ: I mean, somebody literally this morning was honking at me as I was driving my children to school, just really rudely honking at me.

WRIGHT: And you know what they think was unjustified? Whatever it was you did right before they honked. Then you're both sure of it.

RAZ: Just driving slowly, that's what I was doing.

WRIGHT: Oh, people like you drive me crazy.

RAZ: So that feeling - that is unfortunately a normal part of being a human, but it turns out, so is compassion. And there are reasons why our species evolved to be that way. It's an idea Robert explained on the Ted stage. The title of his talk is "The Evolution Of Compassion."

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WRIGHT: So it's not going to sound as warm and fuzzy, maybe, as your average compassion talk. I want to warn you about that. So in the beginning there was compassion and, I mean, not just when human beings first showed up, but actually even before that. I think it's probably the case that in the human evolutionary lineage, even before there were Homo sapiens, feelings like compassion and love and sympathy had earned their way kind of into the gene pool.

And biologists have a pretty clear idea of how this first happened. It happened through a principle known as kin selection. And the basic idea of kin selection is that if an animal feels compassion for a close relative and this compassion leads the animal to help the relative, then, in the end, the compassion actually winds up helping the genes underlying the compassion itself. So from a biologist's points of view, compassion is actually a gene's way of helping itself, OK? So I warned you this was not going to be very warm and fuzzy, OK?

RAZ: So that would suggest that compassion is not entirely altruistic, right? It's actually, like, selfish in nature.

WRIGHT: Well, anything built into us by natural selection has to ultimately have a kind of self-serving logic, at least self-serving at the level of the gene. I don't think that needs to drain the inspirational power out of compassion or anything or make us think any less of it. I think we should be grateful that a seemingly dog-eat-dog process like natural selection left us with an emotion - compassion - that not only do we naturally deploy beyond our families, but through reflection can actually learn to deploy very widely.

RAZ: But there's still these small moments where our compassion is being tested. And, I mean, we don't always rise to the occasion.

WRIGHT: You know, there's an interesting dynamic that you may or may not have noticed, which is when you see a beggar and you're not going to give them money, you really don't want to make eye contact with them.

RAZ: Yes, it happens all the time.

WRIGHT: Right, and you might ask yourself why that is and I think the answer is that one thing compassion is designed to do is to get us to - not necessarily strictly speaking - help people, but be seen as helping them. Right, so it seems to be very important to us that our generosity be acknowledged.

And it seems to be kind of painful to us when we ignore a plea for help and are seen to be doing that because, remember, in the environment of our evolution, you know, a kind of a hunter-gatherer society, everyone you saw would be someone you were going to be seeing again and again and again. And so to deprive someone help they were asking for was to kind of be asking to pay a price for that down the road if you need their help or wanted their assistance.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WRIGHT: Now, there's more good news that came along later in evolution, a second kind of evolutionary logic. Biologists call that reciprocal altruism, OK, and there the basic idea is that compassion leads you to do good things for people who then will return the favor.

Again, you know, I know this is not as inspiring a notion of compassion as you may have heard in the past, but from a biologist's point of view this reciprocal altruism kind of compassion, it is ultimately self-serving too. It's not that people think that when they feel the compassion. It's not consciously self-serving, but to a biologist that's the logic.

It's - and so you wind up most easily extending compassion to friends and allies. I'm sure a lot of you, you know, if a close friend has something really terrible happen to them you feel really bad. And - but if you read in the newspaper that something really horrible happened to somebody you've never heard of, you know, you can probably live with that, OK?

That's just human nature. So it's another good news bad news story. It's good that compassion was extended beyond the family by this kind of evolutionary logic. The bad news is this doesn't bring us universal compassion by itself, OK? So there's still work to be done.

RAZ: But, I mean, how do we show compassion, you know, when it's hard, like, for somebody that you just hate or is really cruel to you, you know? I mean, it's not easy to be compassionate all the time.

WRIGHT: No, it's hard because we're designed to think we're being good when we're not. We are designed to convince ourselves that our very selective deployment of compassion is thoroughly justified. The good news is that we have compassion. We believe that it should definitely be channeled toward deserving people, but then the bad news is we define deserving people in a self-serving way, at least by nature.

We can overcome this on reflection, but we have a tendency to be kind of unconsciously selfish, tribalistic, whatever, in the way we go about deciding who we're going to give our compassion to. You know, it's in a certain sense kind of the challenge humanity's been moving toward, like, forever. Here we are on the brink of having a global civilization and yet we're not doing a very good job of it, even though as we've been moving toward this point, the knowledge that should help us do it has been accumulating. We understand the problem.

RAZ: Then what's holding us back?

WRIGHT: Well, ultimately it gets back to the fact that natural selection is a process that designs things for purposes of serving self-interest. And what is in fact self-serving has changed over time and yet we're stuck with these brains that were designed in an age where what was self-serving was different.

RAZ: When you look at, like, the course of human history and just the forces, right, that are propelling us forward, are you optimistic? I mean, do you think that we're becoming better, more progressive, evolved, compassionate people?

WRIGHT: Well, the good news is that the logic behind being nice to other people is growing stronger and stronger because technology has made our fates more and more intertwined and we are designed to be nicer to people if their fate is intertwined with ours. The bad news is we seem not always good at recognizing how intertwined our fates are, but I do think we have something to build on. In principle, all it should take is making it clearer to people, you know, what is in their own interest.

RAZ: Science writer Robert Wright - his latest book is "The Evolution Of God." He's given two Ted talks. You can see both of them at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.