“Humans are fucked”
“No seriously, people ruin everything”
“What is wrong with the world?!?”
Who hasn’t heard these gasped exasperatedly at a television screen as disfigured children and equally deformed (albeit cosmetically) celebrities serve us another reminder of just how crap our species is?
And make no mistake, our despair is warranted. A recent Oxfam report showed the world’s wealthiest 100 individuals are worth more than the world’s poorest half. Their collective wealth could end poverty four times over. Poverty kills 22,000 children every day. And as I blearily gulp a lifesaving cappuccino, an online “world-o-meter” tells me that over 10,000 people have already died of hunger.
Yet I’d bet my manicured right hand you are not crying. This isn’t like when that adorable old prisoner man hung himself in the middle of The Shawshank Redemption. Or when Rose let Jack go, or when Tom Hanks lost Wilson.
The likelihood these harsh statistics propelled you to altruistic action are equally as remote. You might feel a familiar twinge of dull guilt, but the problem seems too big and the solutions too unattainable. Like trying to imagine the size of the universe – it makes your brain hurt, and you’d rather not, thanks.
With every second post on Facebook crying “This made me lose faith in humanity”, you’d be forgiven for assuming we have given up on ourselves. So what’s going on? Are we dead inside? Do we really not care about 3.5 billion people? Are humans inherently evil?
Like any good story, it seems the answers may lie in clues from our past.
Specifically, our prehistoric past, a time when human ancestors eked out an existence very different from today’s. 24/7 convenience stores weren’t in huge supply. Their main concerns were finding enough food to give them energy to mate and raise babies that lived long enough, for them to in turn mate and raise babies.
The hefty odds stacked against them meant individuals with the most successful solutions to mortal threats survived long enough to have kids. Using social cooperation was the best way to ensure the survival of a large group. Over 200,000 years, those survivors became our ancestors and passed on some of their highly specialised adaptations on to us.
We threw ourselves a curveball, when our social organisation developed before unseen and life-altering practices like agriculture, Instagram, the sovereign state, and McDonald’s. These unrivalled changes have only occurred within the last 10,000 years — the evolutionary equivalent of the blink of an eye — leaving our minds and bodies playing catchup.
In the past, human tendencies to crave fat and sugar motivated us to find energy-dense foods. This in turn stored fat to protect against food scarcity. Romantic love and attachment ensured both parents worked cooperatively to provide maximum resources to new offspring. Even our obsession with celebrity culture can be explained as an adaptation to emulate talented individuals as an efficient way to acquire these skills ourselves.
It is reasoning like this that gleans some hope in what would seem to be our dim view of the human condition. Despite the state of the world, evidence suggests it’s likely the gross mismatch of our adaptive tools with modern problems, rather than an innate lack of empathy, that has left us more or less inept in the face of many of them.
In fact, human empathy has been shown to be anything but an extinct phenomenon.
Psychological studies show empathy to be an efficient, involuntary adaptation for quickly and accurately understanding the emotions of others. Brain scans of empathising individuals show them to be activated as virtual simulators. It’s as if they were experiencing another person’s emotions themselves.
As hunter-gatherers, the assessment of another’s emotions through visual and vocal cues was essential. You needed empathy to maintain relationships with kin, and to identify potential threats. A recent article in Psychological Science noted that for social beings like humans, “negotiating interpersonal decisions is as important to survival as being able to navigate the physical landscape”.
So if empathy is hardwired, how does there seem to be such a deficit? Researchers think it concerns aspects of how human empathy functions. The first is its affinity to visual and aural cues. Emoting with people who aren’t directly in front of you served no evolutionary purpose. As such, modern humans find it difficult to emote without personal cues. A convincing performance on screen, even if fictional, is far more likely to evoke empathy than an impersonal statistic. Whether one is true, and the other, false is irrelevant.
The second deals with limiting the known impulse for altruistic action that accompanies empathetic concern. Early humans only had the capacity to help a limited number of people. It was better for an individual, when confronted with more people in need than they were able to help, to withhold aid, saving resources for oneself. As a result, we have the ability to “switch off” feelings of empathy if we feel overwhelmed or incapable of assisting.
The daily bombardment of images depicting widespread suffering, seems likely to have triggered this very response. Our brains reason that our personal resources aren’t enough to solve the problem, and our natural instincts implore us to direct our attention away.
Our brain’s relative ineptitude at future planning means we find it difficult to think of a solution.
Solutions require the organisation and cooperation of millions of people, a problem our ancestors never faced in their small familial groups on the African savannah.
This unprecedented concoction of external factors can mean the odds are often stacked against us.
The relative sameness of wealthy countries means we rarely interact with people living in systemic poverty. Even with the modern ease of global travel, Western tourists don’t interact in a meaningful way with the poor, for fear of personal safety and convenience.
As we turn to the media as our primary view of the outside world, it too stifles our empathy. Visual storytelling can be effective, but the sensationalist modern news cycle creates the impression of incessant crises, triggering instincts to avoid and ignore the problem.
Even those haloed individuals who manage to rise up and take action find solutions need long-term commitment for little gratification.
Yet all hope isn’t lost. The reality is that thousands upon thousands of people prove that it is possible to defy our basal instincts to serve the needs of people they’ve never met. Their work is paying off too, with the World Bank reporting that poverty fell in every region of the world from 2005-2008.
So there is hope, a lot of hope. But we can always do more.
Empathy today is a spoiled commodity. We have more than we know what to do with, but we spend our spoils where they aren’t needed. Our hearts bleed for synthetic victims on screen, while real ones languish unheard just out of earshot.
Imagine if we translated the empathy for those blaring in our living rooms to active help for the millions in far distant ones? The scale of human kindness could be one unrivalled in history.▼