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Empathy — The Foundation of Human Exceptionalism?

David Klinghoffer
Photo credit: Chewy via Unsplash.

Much of the interest of thinking about intelligent design lies in understanding what a human being is. We are unique, but why? What or who made us so? Why does that matter? And how, exactly, are we unique? At Mind MattersDenyse O’Leary points to a fascinating and moving essay by philosopher Hayden Kee. There is a tendency to see human exceptionalism as grounded in our intelligence. But of course intelligence is measured across species. Kee raises the question of what serves as the “foundation” of that intelligence, and he suggest it might be the unique human capacity for empathy. From, “On the Same Wavelength,” at Aeon:

[W]hat if the primary way in which we are unique, and one of the ultimate causes of our remarkable rational and linguistic capabilities, turns out to be the unique way in which we are emotionally drawn to one another and the world? What if humans have become so rational and linguistic because of the very special kind of social way we interact and emote?

There are some pretty clever animals, and some can appear to share our feelings. But between us and even the smartest beasts there lies a yawning gap:

The deepest strains of our humanity might have little to do with our discrete rational aptitudes at all. For decades now, researchers such as Michael Tomasello have been devising increasingly elaborate and ingenious experiments to study the similarities and differences between human and chimpanzee behaviour and cognition. The state of the art is summarised in Tomasello’s book Becoming Human (2018). Where the most basic level of social cognition is concerned, we are learning that our closest evolutionary kin are much more capable than was once thought. Just like humans, chimpanzees can follow the gaze of other chimps and humans. They have some idea about what others see, and can tell when someone else’s vision is occluded by an obstacle.

But where emotions and motivations are concerned, more basic differences emerge. Chimps don’t engage in the kinds of prolonged, intimate face-to-face emotional interaction that human infants and their [caregivers] participate in through their protoconversations. This might simply be a factor of how they [chimps] have evolved to tune in to the world and their fellow chimpanzees, and what they feel motivated to do. But it is because of such motivation and basic attunement to the world that human children pursue the endless, grueling apprenticeship required to acquire competence in human cultural and linguistic life. This heritage provides the foundations of a more wide-ranging rationality.

Before there can be the unique human intellect, the unique human gift for sharing feelings must be in place. I can look into my dog’s eyes and imagine that he feels with me. Our family dog, Pablo, comes into my home office and looks up at me with sweet eyes. He has learned that I respond well when he uses a long yawn to produce what sounds like a parody of speech: “Aarrr-oooo.” It sounds a bit like “How are you?” As Kee points out, though, rather than inquiring about my emotions, an animal is much more likely issuing an appeal: Feed me. Walk me. Play with me. Take me out to go potty. Unknown to animals are those “prolonged, intimate face-to-face emotional interaction[s]” — shared by human infants as much as by human adults — that carry no request other than: Know me. Let me know you. Let’s know the world together.

No doubt if I gave you 15 seconds you could come up with a pat evolutionary just-so story to account for this, speculating as to what reproductive advantage it serves in a Darwinian scheme. Think like an evolutionary psychologist! But the striking thing is that this unique capacity, actually it is a burning need, for emotional intimacy serves no apparent practical goal. The foundation of our intelligence, if that’s what it may be, even more than intelligence itself, just is.