book reviews

Book Review: “The Compassionate Instinct”

According to some, cooperation and empathy violate our natural instincts. These scientists argue that those who survived in our deep past were those who were best able to dominate and overcome others and thereby produce more offspring. These theories are used to argue that therefore a society based on competition and domination (capitalism) is the only “natural” state and that a society based on cooperation (socialism) is unnatural and therefore impossible.


Is this true?

“The Compassionate Instinct”, edited by Keltner, Marsh, et al, gives a valuable insight.

Survival of the Fittest”

Traditionally, when we think of “survival of the fittest”, we tend to think of the “fittest” individual vs. other individuals of the same species. This is certainly one aspect. However, there is also the question of survival of the species as a whole, and especially amongst the more social animals this means what traits will enable an entire pack or herd of any particular species survive.

In part, studying this issue has been made possible by scientific development, for instance brain imaging. Through this, they have shown that the same part of the brain that is activated when a mother holds her baby is also activated when a person sees pictures of a victim of harm. In the words of the book, these two things “are united by the similar neurological reactions they provoke.” It is interesting that the same part of the brain is activated when a person is helping others as when receiving a reward or experiencing a pleasurable sensation.

These clearly would help the survival of a small band of humans in the wild. The neurological reaction would mean that the members of the band would help each other, thus making the band more successful.

Autonomic Nervous System & Oxytocin

The brain is not the only part of the body that is involved in “feelings”. The “fight-or-flight” response is well known, and involves changes in the skin, muscles, heart rate, etc. The different parts of the body involved in the “fight-or-flight” syndrome are called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). What is interesting is that when people are stimulated to feelings of compassion, the ANS responds exactly the opposite from the fight-or-flight response.

There is also the role of hormones, such as oxytocin. When a mother breast feeds, the oxytocin level elevates. But interestingly, it also elevates when a person performs a friendly act like smiling or waving at somebody, the level also increases.


All of this is related to the feeling we define as “empathy,” and humans are not the only ones capable of this feeling. In one experiment, rhesus monkeys were taught to receive food by pressing a button, which act also gave an electric shock to another rhesus. The monkeys refused to press the button, meaning they went without food, for as long as 12 days to avoid shocking their comrade.

Other experiments have also shown that a similar bond exists across species.

This bond has a survival value at the most basic level. As members of the herd see another react to a potential danger they all react similarly.

Hostility and Violence

Then there is the question of hostility and violence. Studies have shown that the violence between members of a group of a particular species tends to be greater in more stressful or harsh environments. As the book says, one study showed that savanna baboons “’have acquired an aggressive temperament as a defense against predators, and aggressiveness cannot be turned on and off like a faucet. It is an integral part of the monkeys’ personalities, so deeply rooted that it makes them potential aggressors in every situation. Thus, the savanna baboon became, literally, a textbook example of life in an aggressive, highly stratified, male-dominated society. Yet in my observation of Forest Troop (baboons), I saw members of that same species demonstrate enough behavioral plasticity to transform their society into a baboon utopia.”

Soldiers at War

Then there is the issue of human-on-human violence. The studies that show that some 80-85% of soldiers in WWs I and II intentionally avoided shooting the “enemy” soldier prove the extremely strong inhibition against killing. Once the US military found out about this inhibition, they found ways to break it down through desensitization and what one soldier called “manufactured contempt.” The breakdown of this inhibition is related to the significantly higher levels of post traumatic stress disorder in US soldiers since those wars. It also may be one factor that gives US troops a significant military advantage over opposing troops in such places as Somalia or Afghanistan.

WW I soldier. Up to 85% refused to shoot at the "enemy."

WW I soldier. Up to 85% refused to shoot at the “enemy.”

Domination & Hierarchy

Then there is the question of domination and hierarchical behavior. Most primates display such behavior, which is also present in non-literate, hunter-gatherer societies of humans. However, members of the group or clan also have collective means of keeping this behavior within limits – in other words, a collective resistance to dominance.

Revenge & Forgiveness

One of the most interesting parts of this book is on the “forgiveness instinct”. The authors point out that there are some survival benefits in the drive for revenge – the opposite of forgiveness. For one, revenge serves to inhibit similar behavior in others who may be observing as well as inhibit a repetition of the behavior in the one carrying it out in the first place. There are other functions to revenge, or punishment, though. For instance, among rhesus macaque monkeys, if one monkey finds a food source and doesn’t give the eating call – preferring to hog all the food to itself – the others will attack the transgressor if they discover it. This has obvious survival benefits for the troop as a whole.

“Forgiveness” – attempting to soothe over hurt feelings after a conflict – is also just as common though. Amongst gorillas, for instance, after a fight there will be an increase in soothing behavior such as making submissive noises, touching, and grooming. Similar behavior has been found not only among other primates but also among dolphins, goats and hyenas, but not cats (the one non-herd animal). As the authors explain: “Animals reconcile because it repairs important relationships that have been damaged by aggression. By forgiving and repairing relationships, our ancestors were in a better position to glean the benefits of cooperation between group members – which, in turn, increased their evolutionary fitness.”

Gorillas grooming

Gorillas grooming

The authors also make some interesting observations about modifying human behavior. For instance, in one experiment they randomly divided people into three groups. One group was told to write down five things for which they were “grateful” once a week. One group, the control group, was left to its own devices, and the third group was told to write down five hassles they’d been through. “Those in the gratitude condition reported fewer health complaints and even spent more time exercising than those in the hassles conditions… The gratitude group participants also experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness than those in either of the other two groups.” Not only that, but close acquaintances of the subjects strongly tended to report that those in the gratitude group seemed more “helpful” than those in the other two groups. (None of the acquaintances knew anything about the groups or who was in which group.)


Clearly, all of this is related to the survival of the collective.

There are some directly political implications from some of their studies. For instance, the authors do show that there is a region of the brain – the amygdale – that is directly related to hostile behavior to “outsiders”. On the other hand, their research also shows that what is perceived as an “outsider” can change. Continual contact with those previously considered to be outsiders leads to this part of the brain not reacting as it previously did to their presence.

We can, of course, take all of this so far as to make any understanding of it ridiculous. This the authors do.

Experiments like the one above show that behavior can be modified in some situations. What the authors fail to consider is the significance of one stark fact that they, themselves, point out: How the US military has successfully repressed the built-in inhibition against killing other human beings. Clearly, something beyond misunderstanding or (positive) behavior reinforcement is at work. There is the simple element of class interest.

Categories: book reviews, science

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