Sympathy, Empathy, and Caring (Part Two of Three): Understanding Emotions from an Evolutionary Perspective

Guest Post by Nina LaLumia


“Justice is that which benefits your friends and harms your enemies.”

Polemarchus in Plato’s Republic


Chimpanzees and bonobos are human beings’ closest living relatives, since we all share a common ancestor—some kind of ape that lived five or six million years ago. By looking at how chimpanzees live, we can recognise some of our own most basic characteristics. For one thing, like chimpanzees, we are passionately social animals.

We are social, like bees and ants, in the sense that the behaviour of an individual is one piece that fits together with the behaviour of others to form a larger picture—the life of the group. Think for example of all the puzzle-pieces that have to fit together to form a school where children can receive a good education. Similarly, individual bees have to co-operate in highly complex ways to keep a colony of bees up and running.

But the social life of bees does not appear to be a very passionate affair. They co-operate by giving and receiving signals in an instinctive, fairly mechanical way. By contrast, much of human (and chimpanzee) social life works through the sending and receiving of emotional messages. For example, we can generally tell when someone is angry. The message conveyed by anger might be: “I have something we both want (a sexual partner or a piece of meat), and I intend to keep it for myself. Stay away! If you try to take what’s mine, there’s going to be a fight.”

If it matters enough, and we’re willing to take the risk, we can decide to respond to anger with anger and join the battle. Or we can decide to respond to anger by backing down—by submitting and by showing our humility. Humility in this sense is a social emotion. To the individual experiencing it, having to submit to someone more powerful feels humiliating. At the same time, showing humility sends a message to the angry person (or chimp). It says: “I’m not a threat to your power or your possessions. I don’t want to fight, so there’s no reason for you to hurt me. Let me enjoy my crumbs in peace.”

Passionate affairs of this kind go into the formation and maintenance of social pyramids—systems in which an individual (or group of individuals) dominates and/or is dominated by others. From a conventional moral standpoint, many of us tend to view anger, threats and acts of violence as negative, “bad” things. But they are necessary to the survival of the kind of social groups to which we (chimps and human beings) all belong. To put it simply: However much we might wish we didn’t, we need armies and we need police forces. And there always will be some people who have more and other people who have less—that is, some kind of class system.

In contrast to anger, sympathy (as defined in Part One of this series) might seem to be positive, “nice” or “good.” But beware! How do you feel when someone verbally or physically attacks a friend or family member, or the member of some larger group to which you belong: your neighbourhood, city, or country? Sympathy enables us to feel attacked when someone attacks our friends; and generally it motivates us to come to our friend’s defence. That in turn means verbally or physically attacking the person or group that attacked our friend or our group.

If you are not willing to join the battle, generally other members of your group will consider you a coward and will do their best to make you feel ashamed. If you are willing to join the battle, generally you will be celebrated as a hero and other members of your group will do their best to make you feel proud. This is just one example of how we influence the behaviour of others by rewarding or punishing them emotionally—by making them feel good or bad. In more accurate terms: when we praise someone or do something else to make them feel good about what they have done, we are offering them positive reinforcement and making it more likely that they will perform similar actions in future. (This is known as “operant conditioning.”)

Of course, sympathy can be nice. If your friend is hungry or sick, sympathy may motivate you to share some food with them or in some other way attend to their needs. But if you want to understand the world we live in, it’s important to ask yourself why you consider that person your friend in the first place. Isn’t it because that person pleases you in some way—because they have done something good for you in the past, or because you hope they will in future?

Go on, admit it! There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Good for you! If you’ve got friends who hurt you, or who fail to help you when you are in need, as they saying goes: “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”

If a person has what I call “lively sympathy,” it’s a good thing, because they will be an active, well functioning member of the group to which they belong. And to say that a member of a group functions well (to say that they are “a good person”) is simply to say that they help to make and keep the group healthy and strong…healthier and stronger than other groups!

Suggested reading: Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, by Frans de Waal (2006).