Darwin the Buddhist? Empathy Writings Reveal Parallels

Christine Dell'Amore in Chicago
National Geographic News
February 16, 2009

Charles Darwin probably didn't know it, but he held views on human empathy that mirror Buddhist beliefs, says a pioneer in decoding facial expressions.

Based on his interactions with foreign cultures, Darwin came to define empathy as a desire to end someone's suffering to assuage one's own discomfort.

Buddhist teachings also see empathy as a somewhat selfish motivation, but one that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, calls the "seed of compassion."

"It's an amazing coincidence that [Darwin's] views on compassion and morality are identical to the Tibetan Buddhist view," said Paul Ekman, a psychologist whose work decoding so-called micro-expressions is the basis for the new Fox television show Lie to Me.

Indeed, after reading Darwin's work on emotions, the Dalai Lama told Ekman he "would consider himself a Darwinian."

The parallel inspired Ekman to study the little-understood trait of compassion, which he discussed this weekend in Chicago at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Though everyone is capable of compassion, Ekman said, some people seem to manifest it without effort.

(A related study revealed how bullies seem to experience pleasure when they see others suffer.)

Until psychologists figure out why the disparity exists, he said, "the survival of our planet" depends on cultivating compassion.

Universal Trait

Darwin became fascinated with the expression of emotions during his five-year voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle in the 1830s.

The British naturalist couldn't understand the words or gestures of the people he met, but he had no trouble interpreting their facial expressions.

Continued on Next Page >>


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