An interesting article by Emman Seppala in the Observer last month asks:
What led 26.5 percent of Americans to volunteer in 2012 (according to statistics from the US Department of Labor)? What propels someone to serve food at a homeless shelter, pull over on the highway in the rain to help someone with a broken down vehicle, or feed a stray cat?
The article goes to review the scientific studies on the compassionate mind. The article summarizes a great deal of recent research on compassion, such as asking if it is natural or learned?
Though economists have long argued the contrary, a growing body of evidence suggests that, at our core, both animals and human beings have what APS Fellow Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley, coins a “compassionate instinct.” In other words, compassion is a natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival.
Such responses are tied directly to evolution and can be seen in other animals including chimpanzees.
Michael Tomasello and other scientists at the Max Planck Institute, in Germany, have found that infants and chimpanzees spontaneously engage in helpful behavior and will even overcome obstacles to do so. They apparently do so from intrinsic motivation without expectation of reward.
A brain-imaging study headed by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health showed that the “pleasure centers” in the brain, i.e., the parts of the brain that are active when we experience pleasure (like dessert, money, and sex), are equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves.
What is also interesting about the article is that there is no particular mention of the role of religion as the source of compassion (although the Dalai Lama did contribute to the Stanford Center described below). In fact, last year there was a published study suggesting that athiests are more compassionate when they see a stranger in need.
This is in contrast to the traditional view put forth by writers, such as religious historian Karen Armstrong, who wrote when promoting her own religious-based Charter of Compassion,
Compassion is indeed central to every one of the major world religions. … We must implement the Golden Rule globally, treating other peoples ~ whoever they may be ~ as we would wish to be treated ourselves. Any ideology ~ religious or secular ~ that breeds hatred or disdain will fail the test of our time. The religions should be making a major contribution to this essential task ~ and that is why it is important to sign on to the Charter of Compassion, change the conversation, and make it cool to be compassionate.
I think she has it wrong. Compassion is central to the human race, just as eating, sleeping, reproduction, and death. Religion has also co-opted most of those activities, proscribing ‘rules’ for what is right and what is wrong. The reality of compassion is that it goes far beyond religion. Seppala concludes her article by describing the new secular compassion program at Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE).
CCARE envisions a world in which, thanks to rigorous research studies on the benefits of compassion, the practice of compassion is understood to be as important for health as physical exercise and a healthful diet; empirically validated techniques for cultivating compassion are widely accessible; and the practice of compassion is taught and applied in schools, hospitals, prisons, the military, and other community settings.
Once again, this article points out that a feature most often associated with religion, compassion, is just a human trait that most likely arose over 250,000 years ago with the onset of Homo sapiens sapiens on this planet.