Fun Science FRIEDay – Darwin Says Survival of the… empathetic?!

Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology and founding faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley has been pushing an idea – Humans are built to be good, because it aids in human survival.

Photo credit:  ThinkGeek @

Photo credit: Berkeley Social Interaction Lab, UC Berkley

This seems to immediately contradict the framework of evolution that has been popularized,  which champions individual survival and competition to ensure you pass along your genetic make-up to the next generation. Yet within that framework humans tend to still be overwhelmingly good, self-sacrificing for others.

Keltner and his group challenge the perception that Darwin’s notion of survival of the fittest means only the most ruthless, self-serving people “survive” and thrive. He notes that in “The Origin of Species” Darwin frequently talked about the importance of sympathy for human survival, and that Darwin argued that sympathy is the strongest instinct that humans have.

“…communities, which include the greatest number of the most sympathetic individuals, would thrive the most and produce the greatest number of offspring.” -Darwin, “The Origin of Species”

Maybe not terribly surprising when you think about the great ethical traditions that champion empathy and selflessness, but Keltner and his group are validating that folk wisdom with science. They’ve shown when humans experience physical pain, the part of the brain that is triggered is reciprocated in humans that observe said physical pain. A term coined “mirror neurons.” As Keltner states, “Its as if we are wired to have the same experience as other people.”

In another study, when participants were shown images of human pain and suffering, the images triggered powerful reactions of compassion. When the brain of these participants were observed, they found that a very old part of the brain, the periaqueductal gray, lights up. This area is apparently common in mammals during caregiving. Indicating that compassion is a very old evolutionary trait.

Keltner postulates that 60% of our time is dedicated to maximizing individual, personal success, but the other 40%, well, we spend that time doing things for other people.

So on this Fun Science FRIEDay let you love light shine, and boost your evolutionary success by helping others.

To learn more about the cool and interesting work of Keltner and his group, check out the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab and the Greater Good Science Center.

Photo credit: Thinkgeek

Photo credit: Thinkgeek

Happy FSF!!