I found an article today at BBC News. It described how chimps exhibit similar patterns of behavior as humans when dealing with a dying loved one.
The article was rather short (and not too informative), but one excerpt suggests a compelling parallel:
“Staff at Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park in Stirlingshire used video cameras to document the death of a terminally ill female named Pansy, believed to be more than 50 years old.
When she became lethargic in the days leading up to her death, other members of the group became quieter than usual and stayed with her at nights, grooming her more than they did normally.
After her death, her daughter stayed near the body for an entire night, even though she had never slept on that platform before.
All of the group were subdued for several days afterwards, and avoided the place where she had died, spending long hours grooming each other.”
Visit here to see two excerpts of some of this footage: the first video reveals a moment of death in a chimps life with surrounding family, and the bottom video shows a young chimp playing with a dead one until the mother takes it away.
Primal Empathy: Your Suffering Is My Suffering
When a chimp notices a family member is dying they become more attuned to that member’s needs (in the same way a mother becomes attuned to the needs of her baby). Like chimps, our brains “sync up” (as Daniel Goleman puts it in his book “Social Intelligence,”) and we feel what another being is experiencing. In social neuroscience this is referred to as primal empathy or “the ability to sense the non-verbal emotional signals of others and to feel what they are feeling.” Evolutionary psychology tell us that we are biologically driven to respond to those needs; in other words: they are instinctual.
We all experience primal empathy in one form or another. Narcissists and sociopaths show weak empathy for others while those who are charitable and compassionate are seen as more empathetic.
Whenever I think about empathy I am reminded of the teachings by Buddha. He emphasized the wisdom of interconnectedness and described loving-kindness and compassion as a logical moral consequence of this insight.
Science is bringing us one step closer to this knowledge. Through neuroscience we are seeing the biochemical effects of brains and minds feeling connected. In evolutionary psychology we are witnessing high-order thinking mammals exhibit empathy and compassion for one another.
Who knows what it’s like to be a bat, or a whale, or even a tyrannosaurus? Each has a completely different sensory system and a completely different way to interact with its environment. If we were to zoom into the consciousness of any animal it would probably be akin to a psychedelic experience. Yet at the same time we are all united by the fact that we live, we breath, and we are all fighting to stay alive and satisfy our desires.
We often like to see animal consciousness as inherently distinct from human consciousness. Some claim animals aren’t even conscious at all (even to the extent that they don’t experience pleasure and pain). But this assumption seems to ignore even a basic commonsense understanding of other living things.
When viewing these videos of these chimps, when looking at animals at the zoo, or even when just observing our own pets, we are peering into the minds of these living creatures. For humans, empathy is inter-species.
Where Is Evolution Heading?
I don’t think anyone is truly qualified to say where nature is heading. Nature is always changing and adapting in unpredictable ways. If empathy proves to be a dominant force in our evolution, then perhaps we can conclude – to some extent – that nature is a scientific, moral, and practical argument to act good? Perhaps, nature is heading toward a direction of less suffering and a greater sanctity for life?
Maybe sometime in the far away future the golden rule can even beat out natural selection and “survival of the fittest.” Maybe nature does have the potential to be divine? Maybe I am also just dreaming, but one can have their suspicions…either way it won’t be in any of our lifetimes.