Are we as humans fated to bicker, war and fight our way to the top – tooth and claw at the helm – in a race for survival?

Most people would think, well Mr. Darwin did mention ‘survival of the fittest,’ so maybe yes, we are in a bitter race to the top. But in actuality Charles Darwin did no such thing. This common phrase is more correctly attributed to Herbert Spencer and the ‘Social Darwinists’ who wished to appropriate scientific ideas to justify class and race in a capitalist society1. If you read Darwin’s work, you will find his ideas in stark contrast to the idea of ‘survival of the fittest.’ For instance, he writes in Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, “sympathy will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring” (Darwin, 1871, p. 130). What he’s actually saying reflects a survival of the ‘kindest’ rather than the ‘fittest.’ And what this means is that compassion may very well be a naturally evolved and adaptive trait necessary for our own survival as a species.

Is compassion learned or hard-wired?

Darwin was certainly onto something. Today, a substantial body of data shows that cooperation, sharing, helping and reconciliation have solid evolutionary basis. The discovery of mirror neurons in the human brain was the gateway to understanding ourselves as a truly social species. These special neurons ‘light up’ when you feel empathy for another – as when you cringe at the sight of someone getting punched, smile when someone else laughs, or even yawn when someone else does. In essence, we’re wired to share emotions. But is compassion something we’re born with or is it something we learn? Short answer is both. UC Berkeley professor, Dacher Keltner, studies human compassion (you may remember him from a previous conversation I had with Georgie on Radio Headspace). His team’s research shows that compassion activates a very ‘old’ part of the nervous system, which implies that this trait may have evolved prior to the ‘new’ cognitive part of the brain (the frontal lobes)2. This old part of the nervous system involves the vagus nerve, the largest of the cranial nerves, which travels down the spine and wraps around various organs, giving us sensations related to ‘rest and digest’ parasympathetic activities (compared to the ‘fight-or-flight’ activities of the sympathetic nervous system). He writes that the vagus nerve works as part of a social engagement system, including facial expression, touch and active listening, which may have evolved to ‘support attachment and caregiving behaviors.’ What’s more, his research shows that the more compassion you show others, the more you activate this specific nerve. So in essence, compassion could very well be a trait that evolved even before our ‘thinking’ brain, in animals as well as humans, and on which the survival and flourishing of our species depended. Now isn’t it nice to know that kindness may be so ingrained in us that it only takes a moment of mindfulness to let it out, in as little or big a gesture, reminding us of our inevitable connection to one another?