Almost all humans are moved by another’s suffering. We are even moved by the suffering of animals and will almost always act to reduce the emotional or physical pain of others who come to our attention. Those few who are not moved by another’s suffering we often call sociopaths and lock up.
It is important to remember that humans evolved along with our relatives – other primates – who are themselves highly social. In addition to humans we have apes, monkeys, dolphins and elephants included among the group of animals described as ‘obligatorily gregarious’, meaning that they require living in a group in order to thrive. There is a distinct evolutionary advantage to aiding one another. For example, helping one another aids us in leaving more offspring, in avoiding danger, and in locating food and shelter.
Science also tells us that evolution always favors animals that aid one another whenever assistance results in greater long-term benefits than those derived from competing and acting independently. Without kindness and cooperation humans could never have reached the high level of organization and success we enjoy on this planet.
The well-known scientist Charles Darwin believed that humans evolved biologically toward cooperation. Darwin himself suggested that humans evolved first as a hunting/gathering society, then as farmers, and eventually evolved into industrial societies. According to Darwin, no powerful and successful society would be possible without cooperation and hence, the need for kindness.
Social scientists also speculate that our social dependence on one another for survival is what led to the development of morality. These researchers suggests that in spite of our selfish, violent nature that we are moral because morality and kindness increase our odds of survival and reproduction; and increase the odds of our offspring surviving and reproducing themselves. These scientists argue that humans are thus genetically programmed for goodness and kindness because it is necessary for the survival of the human race.
Even animals are hardwired for goodness and kindness. Empathy and kindness have been documented in a wide range of animals – from dogs who instantly show concern when a human acts sad, to monkeys, elephants, wolves, and dolphins.
In fact all animals that rely on cooperation display kindness. Furthermore all animals that live in a group – elephants, dolphins, wolves, chimpanzees, monkeys – are not only loyal to each other, but show kindness towards one another – even when there is no observable direct payoff for the animal acting kindly and even when the other animal is a stranger. The fact that many animals will stick up for their friends, family and even strangers is well documented in the scientific literature. Animals will even act to comfort one another when one is in emotional distress. Ample scientific evidence exist that many primates not only feel empathy towards others who are in distress, but that primates (and some mammals such as dolphins and elephants) will employ acts of kindness to help relieve another’s suffering.
When a baby monkey is suffering others will rush to comfort it. When a baby elephant is stuck in the mud, adult elephants with work cooperatively to free it. As I write this a news story tells of a blind dog whose brother tends to its needs and who daily “leads” its blind brother to safety. Chimpanzee’s generally will not swim but have been observed risking their lives to save a chimpanzee that has fallen into water. And of course, we’ve all had the experience of our dog coming to us when we were sad or crying, in what appears to be a cross-species attempt to console our distress.
Of particular interest, when researchers link pressing a lever to accessing food while simultaneously causing pain or suffering to another animal, both rats and monkeys quickly came to deny themselves food – even starving themselves – rather than causing suffering to another. In this example, the urge to be kind and compassionate over-ruled the drive for sustenance.
In short, research is clear that higher primates and some mammals experience empathy, compassion, and practice acts of kindness for no apparent immediate reward.
Kindness it appears, is in our genes.