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The Rising Tide of Empathy

01/20/2012 12:49 pm ET | Updated Mar 21, 2012

"When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it -- always." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Much of our primitive evolutionary heritage is centered around violent competition for resources. But with the emergence of mammals, and then primates, came the important new evolutionary feature of a protracted period of childhood development. And with this came a hard-wired imperative toward nurturing the young and the helpless. The seeds of empathy were planted.

In a previous blog, we detailed the Christmas Truce of 1914 -- where German and American troops on the western front of World War I left their battle trenches to celebrate Christmas together. The shared camaraderie of a holiday carol briefly subverted the conflict. Bitter warring factions spontaneously set down their arms to exchange gifts and share pictures of loved ones.

A major cause of post-traumatic stress during wartime is our aversion to seeing others come to harm. During World War II, studies found a surprising number of soldiers who either didn't fire their weapons at the enemy at all, or intentionally aimed high. And this proved particularly true in close combat, where a soldier could actually look into the eyes of his opponent -- perceiving a shared humanity. Over time, military training advancements have more effectively overcome this biological directive, but often at great psychic cost to the soldiers, in the form of PTSD.

The visceral human aversion to killing is clearly demonstrated via brain imaging. When presented with the hypothetical moral quandary of engaging a trolley direction switch that will doom one person to be run over, but save a larger group on an alternate path, the logic-processing neocortex area of the brain activates in most experimental subjects. The processing is logic-based, not visceral. But when presented with a similar runaway trolley scenario that requires physically pushing a person onto the tracks in order to save this same group, the brain's limbic system activates. This region provides a "moral" override on top of both our primitive and logical brain centers, dictating that helpless and innocent creatures must not be harmed. A revulsion to such actions is hard-wired.

Yet wars and human atrocities persist -- remnants of our evolutionary past. Bonding and cooperating with an in-group has long provided clear survival benefits. But in order to establish an in-group, there must be, by definition, an out-group, which typically leads to tribal and territorial strife.

While tribalistic identifications and conflicts have persisted throughout much of human history -- based on geography, ethnicity and national/political/religious affiliation -- they have also produced sometimes striking and unexpected results. According to religious historian Karen Armstrong, the term yoga originally came from the practice of warriors "yoking up" their horses in preparation for violent raids on neighboring villages. But with the mass casualties and horrors of warfare unleashed by iron-age weaponry, some warriors began looking within. They interiorized the warrior mindset as a tool of physical and mental discipline -- becoming warrior monks dedicated to mastering themselves.

The 1960s "space race" with the Soviet Union, which was born of a territorial competition for military supremacy in space, also led to movements of a very different nature. Several of the Apollo astronauts reported spiritual or transcendent experiences during their missions to the moon -- sensing the "oneness" of the universe and all living things. Former Apollo astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell went on to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California, chartered with exploring consciousness and the intersection between science and spirituality. Many social historians also credit the stunning "whole earth" photographs taken during the Apollo program with helping to precipitate the environmental movement.

Additionally, the internet began as ARPANET, an interconnected network of defense computers spawned from a Rand Corporation study suggesting that such systems might better maintain U.S. communication capabilities in the face of a surprise Soviet nuclear attack. The resultant internet, World Wide Web, and companion technologies such as Twitter proved essential elements of the recent Arab Spring movement -- again, the antithesis of ARPANET's original militaristic and tribalistic beginnings.

Technology's power to create bonds is illustrated by a recent study showing that Facebook has shortened the well-known "six degrees of separation" between any two people to an average of just four degrees among Facebook users.

As our definition of the human tribe expands, and our economic and political interests intertwine, the necessity of sharing global stewardship becomes ever more vital. In this evolving landscape, it is essential that we learn to better subvert primitive tribal tendencies. Flawed as we might be, history demonstrates again and again that we can't seem to escape the "better angels" of our basic human nature.

Moving into 2012, we have renewed opportunities to manifest this vital aspect of our humanity. Delivering aid to the needy, helpless and downtrodden is not just the right thing to do, it's an important aspect of how we're wired.

For more by Steven and Michael Meloan, click here.

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Steven and Michael Meloan are authors of The Shroud, a science-adventure novel exploring the spiritual impulse, tribalism and its manifestations in human behavior, and the intersection between science and spirituality:

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