Disclaimer: I am an engineer, not a psychologist or sociologist. That said, my guess would be that compassion is one of the first products of empathy and is closely correlated to the capacity of any given individual for an empathic response to another individual or situation. As for empathy itself, I suspect it is a response which has been cultured into Homo sapiens as a part of our "survival-by-group" strategy, which is likely how we managed the first several thousand years back when and how we largely continue to manage today.
I like your reply ... such feelings evolved as part of survival strategies. It flourishes because it is successful in sustaining human life. Thanks Loren. I wonder if such survival strategies will carry humans into the future? Can humans survive without empathy?
I think our problem is in part that basic survival is so taken for granted in the here and now that the mechanisms that allowed for it are being pushed aside in favor of other perceived priorities. I mean, can unfounded prejudice or discrimination be said to be favorable to the advancement of human society? Or, more egregiously, the support and advancement of irrationality and memes and organizations based in irrationality?
I think those who do promote such things need to look hard at the product they produce (not that they would) and ask what function such memes would have if it happened that survival was returned to a high priority and humankind's continued existence WERE on the line. Come to think of it ... climate change, anyone?
Some say humans participate in creating climate change is a scare tactic of environmentalists. What are the options? Humans do? Humans don't? Who knows? What does it matter?
OK, I am going to go on the assumption humans cause climate change and threaten life as we know it on Earth and it is possible to survive with a healthier planet and occupants. Now my next question is how?
There are two firsts: get control of human population growth and get off fossil fuels and stop playing games of "cap and trade" or any other such scheme.
Then we need to change our life styles by getting off fossil fuels at home. Return to community neighborhoods where we can walk to services or develop a CO2 public transportation. Perhaps a park-and-ride system to major services such as health centers and legal centers where a neighborhood can't support them.
Get control of assault weapons and do community policing. Not the kind that shoots first and asks later vigilanteism.
And here I am going to get the wrath come down around my head ... but here goes, women, great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters, go on strike until and unless all weapons get locked up and away from irresponsible users. Women have more power than they know, even as Lysistrata in her plan to end the wars between Athens and Sparta.
Naked Goddess Scene from Lysistrata Staging for PBS
You will need to turn off your Firewall but there are no nude scenes here.
I'm not a psychologist or sociologist. However, I do have a degree in anthropology - though I have not worked in the field for over 30 years. Having said that, I see it as a survival mechanism. Compassion, empathy, altruism are all, in my estimation, hard wired into us to make sure our genetic material survives. Starts with those closest to you in the gene pool, and while still present, lessens the farther away it gets from you immediate descendants.
How often have we heard a parent say they would throw themself under a bus to save their child? Now, while that same person may have monetarily contributed to Haitian earthquake relief and/or relief for the tsunami victims in Japan, or southeast Asia a few years before, I doubt they would be willing to sacrifice their life for those victims. Maybe a few would, but on the whole, I seriously doubt it. Nevertheless, there is still a feeling of kindred most of us share with with victims whom we will never meet. After all, they still share 26 pairs of very similar chromosomes to us.
Pat, We see a growing number of people falling under the bus worldwide. The human test involves how we respond. The Earth is clearly over populated. Millions starve to death, others suffer treatable diseases, some want to die and many cannot legally (that is a silly statement but true). What choices does one have?
Do nothing. Send a few dollars, not enough to solve the problem. Send clothes and food, not enough. Go to the root of the problem and challenge the church to take responsible action and require family planning, build coalitions to challenge government to face up to poverty and its causes.
There are 7,062,640,752 human beings on this planet and we do not have enough food for all or distribution systems in place, or the will to feed everyone. There are not enough jobs for people to earn their own way, especially in devastated areas caused by weather or war and now by changing weather patterns. Much of USA and China seem to trending toward loss of soils for food crops.
What are our choices here? Feed everyone? Feed only those who have the time, space, soil, water, and interest in growing their own food and let the others die slow deaths? Start wars to reduce populations?
As an individual, there are some things I can and am doing to protect my family and participate with neighbors in non-violent ways. One very important way is to have my home and garden as peaceful as I can possibly make it and as interesting and stimulating as one can have on 50' x 185' of land.
Do you have ideas to offer?
I suspect that the most basic evolutionary root of empathy is the mother child bond. If females didn't have compassion for their own young, we'd be functioning at the reptile level. Well, even crocodile moms help their newborn dig out and get to water safely.
And croc fathers too if I remember right.
And our choices? Have we got choices? I have to take care of myself, for that is my base: after that I can share wharever there is.