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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.

In his lesser known 1872 book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin proposed that empathy is a universal trait.

"He saw this book as an important contribution showing the commonality of all people," Ekman said. (Read more about Darwin's scientific legacy.)

It's also possible that Darwin encountered Buddhist teachings through letters from other scholars of the time, he added.

Over the past few years, Ekman examined Darwin's book along with Buddhist teachings and divided compassion into three types: simple, global, and heroic.

Simple compassion is the almost instinctual form that exists mostly between a mother and an infant.

Global compassion appears when people help distant strangers, such as the outpouring of international aid after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

And heroic compassion occurs when a person is motivated into epic acts of bravery, for instance, jumping into an icy pond to save someone else's life.

In a recent book co-authored with the Dalai Lama, Ekman suggests creating "compassion gyms" that could test a person's level of compassion and even offer exercises to prompt deeper caring for others.

The Dalai Lama, meanwhile, believes that just the sight of unbearable suffering is enough to inspire compassion.

Animal Emotions

Darwin also argued fervently in his 1872 book that animals and humans share the capacity for emotion, an idea that has been borne out by later research, Ekman noted.

(See photos showing how a dying elephant seems to elicit compassion from its herd.)

Many great ape studies, for example, show that the animals can place themselves into another's shoes, so to speak. This sensitivity comes from being self-aware, Barbara King, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, told National Geographic News.

"We wouldn't be human in the ways we are human today if apes were not deeply emotional creatures and deeply social ones," King said. "We are … products of our past."
 

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