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Compassion as an evolved human motivation: The archeological evidence!

Compassion focused therapy is an evolutionary model of psychotherapy. We have these evolved brains and bodies, and both can be very tricky and cause us a lot of suffering: emotionally, physically, socially and so on. But CFT proposes that compassion also evolved as an innate aspect to human nature. Compassion is there, within us, and we can learn about it and practice it and go a long way towards embodying it in our lives. And, of course, a compassionate motivation is aimed at helping us suffer less.


But how can we be so sure compassion evolved as part of the species and isn’t, in fact, a more recent addition, something related to being more civilised, perhaps?



I’m diving into Charles Darwin’s 1859 great book The Origin of Species at the moment. I found this copy recently at a local market, so that was exciting! Of course, you can always get a new copy too, so I have included a link to this here. Anyway, I got super excited about the following passage at the end of the Introduction:


As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.

In some ways, that’s evolution in a nutshell. Of course, evolutionary science has progressed and developed since 1859. We now understand much more about genes and gene frequency, and the way that evolution involves changes in the frequency of certain genes, becoming more or less frequent depending on conditions, and then being expressed as physical, behavioural and relational changes across generations, and so on.


As Carl Sagan said in his 1980 book Cosmos:

The secrets of evolution are death and time-the deaths of enormous numbers of lifeforms that were imperfectly adapted to the environment; and time for a long succession of small mutations.

Actually, this is based on a great TV series from 1980!


We are also now aware of a number of ways this process of evolution can occur, with natural selection being one, but also sexual selection, artificial selection and processes like genetic drift. So, there is a lot more to it, but Darwin’s thoughts on the matter are still foundational.


Anyway, that’s the theory, but what’s the evidence?


Well, there really is quite a lot of evidence. As Richard Dawkins has cheekily said:

Evolution is a theory? Well, so is gravity, and I don’t see you jumping out of buildings.

We see one type of evidence for the theory of evolution at play in the form of micro-evolution. Sadly, that’s what these coronavirus variants are all about, the rather rapid evolution of the virus as slight variations allow it to be more successful. Alpha, Delta, Omicron…and we are waiting to see what it evolves to next.


But from a human evolution point of view, there is also a lot of evidence, not least archaeologically. And so I want to turn my attention to the archaeological evidence for the evolution of compassion in humans.


Penny Spikins is Professor of the Archaeology of Human Origins at the University of York in the UK. In her 2015 book How Compassion Made us Human: The evolutionary origins of tenderness, trust and morality, Professor Spikins adeptly discusses the long history of human compassion by outlining archeological evidence from the earliest human species two million years ago, through to the more recent Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens.


She also has a great chapter called Prehistoric origins: The compassion of far distant strangers, in Paul Gilbert’s edited book Compassion: Concepts, Research and Applications.


In fact, Professor Spikins says that evidence for care and compassion is found earlier in our evolutionary past, and is more widespread, than evidence for violence! And the evidence is rich.


For example, the compassion of others is indicated in a skeleton of a female Homo Ergaster from 1.6 million years ago. Homo Ergaster is considered a common ancestor to Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens, and a nice little summary of them can be found at the Australian Museum website.


Anyway, this skeleton, found in Kenya, shows evidence in her bones of disease or disorder that would have been immobilising and caused severe pain, and she would have only been able to survive as long as she did with the help of others, providing her with food, water and protection.


A second example is found in the remains of a toothless hominin from 1.8 million years ago found in the nation of Georgia. This individual had lost all but one tooth, and yet had survived many months as evidenced by the degree of bone resorption surrounding the area where the teeth were missing. Archeologists believe that this individual would have only survived as long as they did by having been looked after by others.


Now, lots of animals look after their young for the extended amount of time until maturity, and lots of animals will briefly console each other, for example, after a fight and usually when that consolation is reciprocated. Chimpanzees share a common ancestor with us around 6 to 8 million years ago, and they are absolutely capable of a certain care and compassion.


But the archeological evidence regarding these earliest humans suggests that they showed compassion not only to their young but to other adults, that it was done for extended periods of time helping others survive, and it was without necessarily any immediate reciprocity.


Like, millions of years ago!


But the next question is, why might this kind of concern for the welfare of others have been selected as an adaptive characteristic along our evolutionary journey? Surely the biggest and strongest were the most likely to survive? Well, according to Professor Spikins, collaboration was key to early humans’ survival. We had to work together, and that meant looking after each other. And in the context of the importance of collaboration, it is not the most powerful that we necessarily select as allies, but the best collaborators. And so, social reputation also became important for our earliest ancestors.


Not just pretending to be a good collaborator and then abandoning or betraying the others out of self-interest or when convenient. But rather, a genuine, persistent, reliable collaboration, and so early humans became very good at detecting others’ emotions and motivations through their behaviours, body postures, facial expressions and so on. And those individuals who happened to be more inclined towards collaboration, and therefore compassion, were more likely to survive, be selected as a mate, and pass on their genes!


Bring time forward to around 45 to 60 thousand years ago, and we find evidence of Neanderthals also looking after each other. In a cave in Iraq, the remains of 10 individuals have been found. One of them was an old male…well, he’s thought to have died somewhere between 35 and 45 years of age…who had many physical injuries and impairments that would have made it difficult for him to even get around. The interesting finding here was that the injuries seemed likely to have occurred much earlier, probably during childhood. Archaeologists conclude that his care must have involved the whole group and spanned many years!


So, well before recorded history, well before the establishment of so-called civilisation and way before the advent of religion, humans were looking after each other, helping each other, and caring for each other.


Of course, I am not saying the humans, even the prehistoric humans, were always compassionate. We can obviously be very competitive, often divisive, sometim


es aggressive and at times even callous and cruel. But compassion, being sensitive to suffering and committed to trying to alleviate or prevent that suffering, seems to have evolved to be characteristic of humans, and has been with us for a very long time.


Thanks for reading! And please check out my YouTube page to hear and see more about compassion, self-compassion, compassion focused therapy and a whole range of related topics every week.

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