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Compassion – it's in our bones

Wednesday, 11. April 2012

Andrew Stallybrass (Photo: Karen Elliott Greisdorf)Archeological evidence shows that both religion and compassion have been part of the human experience from our earliest origins, says Andrew Stallybrass.

I don’t really believe in non-believers. We all seem to believe in something. I suspect that it’s part of being a human being. And for me, ‘belief in a life hereafter’ is not the right expression. I think it’s a human instinct rather than a belief, to sense that death is not the end. The religious impulse seems to go back to the very earliest beginnings of humanity – if not earlier. There is credible evidence of religious behaviour from the Middle Palaeolithic era (300-50 thousand years ago) and possibly earlier. The experts deduce this notably from burial sites. People buried as if for a journey, with the necessary for travel to another place.

It seems to me – and I’m not alone – that there’s pretty conclusive evidence that the religious instinct appeared early in our race, and is universal. In some places today, in the so-called ‘developed world’ people proud to think of themselves as modern have worked at killing this religious instinct. But why bother, when the modern world validates the realization of other healthy instincts? Is this not a healthy instinct too?

According to the Smithsonian web site: ‘Our ancestors often buried the dead together with beads and other symbolic objects. Burial rituals heightened the group’s memory of the deceased person. These rituals may imply a belief that a person’s identity extends beyond death.’ There’s a lively debate among paleo-anthropologists about intriguing signs of ‘compassion’ among our distant ancestors. Not just respect for the dead, but respect for the living. Compassion: ‘A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.’

Shanidar Cave is an archaeological site in the Zagros Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan (northern Iraq). It was excavated between 1957-1961 and yielded the first adult Neanderthal skeletons in Iraq, dating between 60-80,000 years ago. The Shanidar fossils show a very high frequency of healed injuries of all different kinds. The most extreme example of this is an upper arm bone that’s withered, a healed over amputation just above the elbow. This individual lived with this handicap for 20 or 30 years. ‘And what that says is that these people were taking care of their injured kin. They were taking care of people who had serious injuries so they could survive and continue to be functional members of the social group for many years. It was a dangerous lifestyle, but they were compassionate, they were caring, they were human,’ says Erik Trinkaus.

There are now quite a number of such burial sites, with fossil remains showing different handicaps – but all showing that groups must have gone to considerable lengths to prolong the lives of less than ‘useful’ members of the clan or community.

‘However, even if we can interpret their behaviour as supportive, is it compassionate?,’ asks Terisa Green, who is an archaeologist and research associate with the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, a department of University College London (UCL), in the United Kingdom. She goes on, ‘Archaeologists are loath to project modern sensibilities into prehistory.’ She continues, ‘Perhaps the supportive behaviour of these early people actually accrued some advantage to them in their own time, but it certainly confers some benefit to future generations that members of the species will work together for the survival of more than just the individual.’

Green concludes, ‘From our standpoint, looking back on stories that have long since reached their conclusion, there is no doubt that the choices made by Homo erectus, Neanderthal, and Cro-Magnon furthered the survival of disadvantaged members of their societies. If we can count such supportive behaviour as compassionate, if only by virtue of its results, then there is ample evidence for the existence of compassion in our ancestors. Moreover, because of its early and persistent appearance in the archaeological record, we can begin to speculate that the presence of compassion is yet another hallmark of what makes us human in the first place.’

Evolution is often presented as a strictly competitive endeavour. But scientists have long wondered how societies could have evolved without some measure of cooperation. Martin Nowak, one of the world’s experts on evolution and game theory, has just written a book with bestselling science writer Roger Highfield, SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. It turns an important aspect of evolutionary theory on its head to explain why cooperation, not competition, has always been the key to the evolution of complexity. He offers a new explanation for the origin of life and a new theory for the origins of language, biology’s second greatest information revolution after the emergence of genes. SuperCooperators also brings to light his game-changing work on disease. Cancer is fundamentally a failure of the body’s cells to cooperate, Nowak has discovered, but organs are cleverly designed to foster cooperation.

Nowak and Highfield examine the phenomena of reciprocity, reputation, and reward, explaining how selfless behaviour arises naturally from competition; how forgiveness, generosity, and kindness have a mathematical rationale; how companies can be better designed to promote cooperation; and how there is remarkable overlap between the recipe for cooperation that arises from quantitative analysis and the codes of conduct seen in major religions, such as the Golden Rule. They make the case that cooperation, not competition, is the defining human trait.

As the Dalai Lama memorably says: ‘Compassion is not religious business, it is human business, it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.’ In this season when many believers are celebrating the victory of life over death, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that care for others isn’t just part of the teaching of the founders of all the great religions. It is an essential part of who we are, and what we are.

Andrew Stallybrass is Managing Director of Caux Books, the small international publishing house linked with Initiatives of Change. He is also an independent writer and journalist and a lay preacher in the Geneva Reformed Church.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.