Skip to main content

Science, Compassion and Common Humanity

Is Compassion an Evolutionary Trait?

by Rita Hibbard

If Charles Darwin and the Dalai Lama could chat, they would agree on why humans are compassionate, psychologist Paul Eckman says. "We are compelled to relieve the sufferings of another, in order that our own painful feelings may be at the same time relieved," Darwin wrote.

The Dalai Lama says "the seed of compassion" is the discomfort we experience when we see someone suffering. "We are thus impelled to relieve the suffering of another so that our own painful suffering may be relieved."

Eckman, an award winning psychologist whose work has been reported on in Time, The New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications, and who has appeared on numerous TV programs including Oprah, 48 Hours and Dateline, spoke at a conference on scientific studies into compassion & altruism sponsored by Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research & Education (CCare). Compassion Action Network International was a co-sponsor of the event, held in Telluride, CO.

Eckman, who has had six hours of one-on-one conversations with the Dalia Lama, says Darwin went even further. Sympathy, Darwin wrote, should extended beyond “the confines of man, to the lower animals” and “seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused until they extend to all sentient beings.”

The Dalai Lama, Eckman notes, “was amazed” at Darwin’s use of the phrase “sentient beings, which is a term in Buddhist discourse used to refer to beings with consciousness or sentience. Research shows Darwin knew nothing of Buddhist teaching, Eckman said.

In his work, Eckman has wrestled with the definition of compassion. Must one feel exactly what the sufferer feels? Must one take action to relieve the suffering in order to be compassionate? The Dalai Lama says “no” to the first question.

As to the second, Eckman says he’s unsure.

“We know that all of us are exposed to repeated suffering,” he said. “We see more in a week than our anecestors saw in a lifetime. What does that do to our brains?”

Eckman’s research also tries to answer questions like whether anticipating and preventing suffering qualify as compassionate acts. “That is what parents do,” he said. “I consider that compassionate action (that is) compassionately motivated.”

Eckman is studying “stranger compassion, which can be global, or directed to those with whom we share similarities of culture, race or group. Darwin, also focused on stranger compassion as he developed his evolutionary theory, investigating whether it provided an evolutionary advantage.

The Dalai Lama, Eckman notes, believes the ability to experience stranger compassion is produced by previous incarnation.

“That is the only explanation I reject,” the scientist said, saying he believes chance, upbringing or genetic predisposition, evolutionary or not, to be on the list of possible explanations.

Read more about Eckman's work at his website:

You might also like:Selfish or Social. Who Has Winner Genes? 



←  Go back                                                  Next page