A few years ago, our local paper carried the moving account of a mama cat who rescued her very young litter of four kittens from a burning house. Having carried one of the kittens to safety on the lawn outside, she scampered back inside three more times to carry her last offspring to a spot on the lawn where a small crowd gathered to watch her dare-develing rush against time and scorching flames to save her brood. Her ears were seared by the blaze, and she was asphyxiated with smoke before she collapsed beside her kittens and was revived by the firemen who had to administer oxygen.
Of course, we could see this life-risking behavior of the mama cat as an example of the mother instinct. It is that, to be sure, but I believe it is more.
In my last chapter, I spoke about the heroic efforts of many people -- medical teams, police officers, firefighters, and by-standers of countless races, nationalities, and religions who relentlessly and bravely came to the aid of people wounded in the Boston Marathon incident. Strangers rallied around strangers; assistance poured in from far-away places and people who had no ties to the Patriots' Day outing that so defines Boston and our national heritage in the United States.
We respond as if surprised each time people from around the world offer generous gestures to distant groups of victims when they suffer a catastrophe, whether it be a tornado, hurricane, run-away fire, tsunami, mass-murder or whatever. And we are even more struck when these acts of compassion require life-risking deeds of heroism. But this is our human legacy, as well as the legacy of other creatures in the animal kingdom.
What we are coming to see is that life is not just about competition, violence, selfishness, callousness, and greed. In fact, we may come to discover that our basic instinct is a composite of reverence, compassion, and honor. We may come to recognize that our centuries of brutality and war are themselves aberrations that have sprung out of our true nature when it was overwhelmed with scarcity, disease, natural catastrophes, and accidents -- all a part of our natural history, but not our nature!
How can I make this claim? Let me point you to three sources that are worthy of our attention in this matter.
The first is the work at the University of California, Berkeley, on the science of human goodness, compiled by the Greater Good Science Center. Dacher Keltner is co-founder of the Center and is one of the editors of The Compassionate Instinct. In that book, Keltner offers this bold assessment of current research:
Recent studies of compassion argue persuasively for a different take
on human nature, one that rejects the preeminence of self-interest. These
studies support a view of the emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive --
a view that has its origins in Darwin's Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals.
Compassion and benevolence, this research suggests, are an evolved part of
human nature, rooted in the brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated for
the greater good. (pp. 8-9)
Keltner's point that this compassionate instinct is rooted in the brain is the theme that is my thesis in this writing. It is the brain that I want us to consider now and not just the human brain.
In that same book cited above, there is an essay by Frans De Waal, a zoologist and ethologist who has spent much of his life studying primate behavior, currently basing his work as Professor of Psychology and a research scientist at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory University. Waal offers many studies demonstrating the presence of empathy in other species. Here is one such reference:
But perhaps the most compelling evidence for the strength of animal
empathy came from a group of psychiatrists led by Jules Masserman at North-
western University. The researchers reported in 1964 in the American Journal
of Psychiatry that rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered food
to themselves if doing so gave a shock to a companion. One monkey stopped
pulling the chain for 12 days after witnessing another monkey receive a shock.
Those primates were literally starving themselves to avoid shocking another
animal. (p. 18)
But note now a very interesting observation that Waal makes:
Emotions trump rules. This is why, when speaking of moral role models, we
talk of their hearts, not their brains (even if, as any neuroscientist will point
out, the heart as the seat of emotions is an outdated notion). We rely more
on what we feel than what we think when solving moral dilemmas.
It's not that religion and culture don't have a role to play, but the
building blocks of morality clearly predate humanity. We recognize them in
our primate relatives, with empathy being most conspicuous in the bonobo
ape and reciprocity in the chimpanzee. Moral rules tell us where and how
to apply our empathic tendencies, but the tendencies themselves have been
- the reptilian system: It appeared around 248-206 million years ago and serves as the organizing center for aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays.
- the paleomammalian system: Developing between 206 and 144 million years ago, this system of the septum, amygdala, hippocampal complex, and cingulate cortex is responsible for motivation and emotion, feeling, behaviors having to do with reproduction and parenting.
- the neomammalian system: Coming later in the evolutionary scene, 55-24 million years ago, this system includes the cerebral cortex unique to mammals and enables language, planning and perception, and abstraction.