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The Earthquake That Triggered A Global Empathic Response: What The Haitian Crisis Tells Us About Human Nature

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Frantic tweets and videos have been seeping out of Haiti, pleading for help from the rest of the human race in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that leveled one of the poorest countries on the planet, spreading destruction and death.

The response by people all over the world has been immediate. Governments, NGOs, and individuals are mobilizing relief missions, and social websites are lighting up, as the collective human family extends a global empathic embrace to its neighbors in this small Caribbean nation. We saw a similar global response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans and the gulf coast of the United States and the giant tsunami that struck Asian and African coastlines earlier in the decade.

In recent years, whenever natural disasters have struck, in what is increasingly becoming a globally interconnected and interdependent world, human beings have come together as an extended family in an outpouring of compassion and concern. For these brief moments of time, we leave behind the many differences that divide us to act as a species. We become Homo empathicus.

Yet, when faced with similar tragedies that are a result of human-induced behavior, rather than precipitated by natural disasters, we are often unable to muster the same collective empathic response.

For example, recall when oil hit a record $147/barrel on world markets in July, 2008. Prices soared and basic necessities from food to heating oil became prohibitively expensive, imperiling the lives of hundreds of millions of human beings. Food riots broke out in more than 30 countries. Yet, the collective response of the human race was barely perceptible. Similarly, plagued with the real-time impacts of human induced climate change, which is already devastating ecosystems in countries around the world and creating millions of environmental refugees, the global response has been weak.

The question is: why?

It's true that unexpected natural disasters quickly arouse our attention. But, my suspicion is that this is not the only reason that we are unable to respond to human induced suffering with the same emotional and cognitive focus. The problem lies much deeper. When human induced behavior results in suffering to others on a large scale, we tend to shrug our shoulders as if to say, "that's human nature and therefore, there's not much we can do about it." That's because we have come to think of human nature as essentially selfish. Our beliefs have become a self-fulfilling prophecy--even if they turn out to be incorrect.

At the dawn of the modern market economy and the nation-state era, the philosophers of the Enlightenment argued that human beings are autonomous agents, and are detached, rational, and driven by material self-interest and utilitarian pursuits.

But, is that who we really are?

If so, then how do we explain the empathic response to natural disasters like the one that occurred in Haiti this past week. Perhaps our ideas about human nature merely reflect the operating assumptions of the modern market economy and provide those in power with an easy way to justify and explain the suffering inflicted on others, writing it off as a reflection of our species' aggressive, predatory and selfish behavior.

But, what if these age old assumptions about human nature are false? In the past 15 years, scientists from a wide range of fields, from evolutionary biology to neurocognitive research and child development, have been making breathtaking discoveries that are forcing us to rethink our long-held beliefs about human nature. Researchers are discovering mirror-neurons--the so-called empathy neurons--that allow human beings and other species to feel and experience another's situation as if it were one's own. We are, it appears, the most social animals and we seek intimate participation and companionship with our fellows.

It is only when our basic biological drive of empathic engagement is repressed or denied that secondary drives like aggression, acquisitiveness, and selfish behavior come to the surface.

It turns out that empathic consciousness has grown steadily over history. Our forager/hunter ancestors only extended primitive empathic distress to their immediate blood relatives and extended family. With the rise of the world's great religions, empathic consciousness extended to those of like-minded religious affiliation. Jews empathized with Jews, Christians with Christians, Muslims with Muslims, etc. In the modern market economy and nation-state era, the empathic embrace extended to people sharing a common national identity. American empathized with Americans, Germans with Germans, Japanese with Japanese, etc.

Today, distributed information and communication technologies are bringing together the entire human race in an extended family. Is it so difficult, then, to imagine a leap to biosphere consciousness and the extension of empathy to our species as a whole and to the other creatures that cohabit this planet with us? Think for a moment, about the global empathic response when a young college pre-med student was gunned down in the protests that followed the flawed Iranian election. Within minutes, millions of college students around the world were viewing a cell-phone video of the killing and were extending their empathy to the young people in Iran. Or consider the release of the video showing a polar bear and her cub stranded on an ice floe in the arctic because of global warming. Millions of youngsters around the world instantly empathized with the plight of the mother and her cub.

Schoolchildren everywhere are learning that their everyday behavior--the food they eat, the electricity they use, the family car they drive in, and myriad other consumer habits intimately affect the wellbeing of every other human being and every other creature on Earth. This is the emergence of biosphere consciousness and the beginning of the next stage of our evolutionary journey as an empathic being.

Now we need to prepare the groundwork for an empathic civilization that is compatible with our core nature. This will require a rethinking of parenting styles, reforming our educational system, reinventing our business models, and transforming our governing institutions so that the way we live our lives is attuned to and, in accord with, our fundamentally empathic nature.

Lest we think this is an impossible task, consider again the global empathic outpouring for the victims of the Haitian earthquake. Then ask, why we can't harness that same global empathic embrace, not only to rescue victims of natural disasters, but also to raise generations of empathic global citizens who can live together in relative peace and harmony in a biosphere world.

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